To summarize my maternal grandmother’s life: She did the most.
In the winter months during 1963, my Maternal Grandmother, Helen Mary Wilkes (and also spelled Wilks), was donning a thinly clad garment and acting in the Greek tragedy, “Antigone.” That in of itself is nothing spectacular.
That is, except that “Mama Helen” (as were told by her to call her), in 1963 was also a mother of adult children and a high school student while working as an unnamed “Hidden Figure” at the Strategic Air Command Headquarters, Offutt Air Force Base in nearby Bellevue, Nebraska. She was not supposed to be a “brain” at Offutt where she worked as administrative assistant to the scientists. She was actually an astute mathematician with an amazing intellect with exemplary secretarial skills.
Mama Helen was not supposed to be on the theatre stage at her age, 45, in a supporting role to help build her acting repertoire. She was not supposed to understand the Greek language and read Latin. She was not supposed to be old enough to be the mother of the play’s director. After all, she was a black woman who should have been content to remain hidden as a white-collar worker albeit with tremendous skills outside of the workplace. I often traveled with her from North Omaha to theatres around the city and developed my love for Latin, global travels and writing.
Thankfully, Mama Helen was never content being confined to what the so-called societal norms were in Omaha and across the nation. She would always tell me about her travels around the world. She was the super volunteer for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She played the organs at various churches on Sunday, often for no pay as she considered it her tithe to the church and unto God. Monies were stretched in the household, according to my mother, Angeline Cecil Owen Wead, the oldest of six children born in five years to Mama Helen and Grandpa Eugene Owen, II. Mama Helen was mostly the single parent in their household as my grandfather was off to build his hopes of a Hollywood career as a dancer and singer.
Thankfully, the village that was led by our Great-Grandmother Edna Lou Wilks Robinson, worked. Mama Helen received significant assistance from Grandmother Robinson.
In later years, Mama Helen was voted into the prestigious Omaha Central High School Hall of Fame. In this tribute to Mama Helen when she was inducted in the Hall of Fame that also honors Warren and Susie Buffett, my Dad, Dr. Rodney S. Wead, countless athletic, political, academic, world leaders and more, Mama Helen was remembered:
“Helen loved music and the arts and volunteered with Opera Omaha, Omaha Community Playhouse, Center Stage, and Chanticleer Theater. She served on the Nebraska Arts Council and Omaha’s Human Relations Board.
Helen passed away in 2008 at the age of 90.”
Upon Mama Helen’s retirement, she devoted her time to a program that she earlier developed to help single women develop skills to become secretaries, assistants and other related jobs inside of offices. She conducted the classes at a local community center.
Steps to help you to share stories about your ancestors
- Walk with your ancestors by researching their lives.
- Narrow down your work to focus on one ancestor.
- Once you locate periodicals, broadcast reports, historical data on military cards, death certificates and more about your ancestor, take the time to capture where the information leads you to build the rest of the story.
- Honor your ancestor. Take a moment and offer a wonderful prayer for her/his walk before you. Look for similarities between your life and the ancestor’s.
- Share your results so that others may benefit from their stories. It also helps to establish your interests in activities.
- Repeat steps 1 – 5.