Helen L. Mills of Bryan passed away peacefully on July 3 at the age of 92. A fourth-generation Californian, Helen loved reading, sewing, gardening, and studying Stone Age art. She served for many years as Director of the Kurth Memorial Library in Lufkin, Texas, before retiring in 1996 and moving to Bryan to be near her family.
Helen Lucille Davis was born in rural Sonoma County, California, into a family of farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. Her father, Sidney Shepard Davis, was a machine gunner during World War I who was mustard-gassed but lived to the age of 99 working as an orchardist, dairy farmer, and gardener. Helen’s mother, Louise Durée Proschold, was the daughter of a San Francisco businessman who purchased a ranch near the Russian River where he built the family’s sixteen-bedroom home. Louise had twelve brothers and sisters and set a fine example for the family her whole life by working cheerfully as a gardener, crop worker, and dairy farm hand. She died at the age of 89.
Growing up on the Russian River, Helen Davis became a good swimmer, camper, fisherman, and marksman. She hunted small game for the family dinner table and fished in rivers, creeks, and the Pacific Ocean, where she harvested crabs and abalone. Helen attended Analy High School in Sebastopol, California, working part-time in a cannery and as a soda fountain jerk. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, two of Helen’s Japanese-American friends (both U.S. citizens) were hauled off to a concentration camp in the Northern California desert. Even at age 92, Helen remembered them clearly and kept photographs of them. During World War II Helen’s family conserved food and fuel, added an acre to her father’s garden, canned more fruit and vegetables, and bought savings bonds when they could afford to. In 1944 Helen graduated with honors from Analy High School and was named a California State Scholar.
By then Helen had already met and married Harold Larson Dunning, an electrician’s mate in the U.S. Navy who was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the war broke out. Their first child, Claudia Louise Dunning, was born in Sebastopol, California, in 1944. Their second child, Carol Ann Dunning, was born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1946. After the war, the family moved to Humboldt County, California, where Harold started an electrical contracting business, “Lightning Electric.” Harold also became president of the local chapter of the I. B. E. W. Helen worked at a creamery and as secretary for Harold’s company. Their third child, Chester Sidney Larson Dunning, was born in Scotia, California, in 1949. Harold established a small homestead north of Fortuna, California, near the mouth of the Eel River, and in 1951 the family moved into the two-story house Harold built entirely of clear-grain redwood lumber. It was the family’s first home with an indoor toilet. In addition to raising children, Helen and Harold became avid gardeners and planted many flowering trees, fruit trees, shrubs, rose bushes, berry vines, flowers, and ferns that made their home and landscaping stand out in the neighborhood. They also raised chickens, ducks, and even pheasants.
Helen and Harold dedicated themselves to the education of their children and several foster children. In addition to supervising Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts (Harold was a Scoutmaster), 4-H Club, Campfire Girls, dance lessons, music lessons, swimming lessons, outdoor cooking, week-long river camping adventures, trips to the beach, fishing, hunting, boating, and archery, Helen and Harold taught their children botany, geology, chess, ceramics, drawing, and watercolor. They self-published a guide to survival in the wilderness of Northern California, complete with beautiful drawings of edible wild plants. Helen and Harold raised their children to love, respect, and find beauty in nature, to work hard, to help those in need, and to be honest and straightforward. Unusual for the 1950s, the Dunnings held family council meetings that allowed their children to air grievances, make suggestions, and vote on important issues. Their democratic values were matched by their commitment to equal rights for women. Determined that all their children would go to college, Helen and Harold worked hard to make sure their daughters were allowed to become the first female students to study advanced math, physics, and mechanical drawing at Fortuna High School – where they both excelled. In addition to championing equal rights for their daughters, Helen and Harold began saving money to help send all three children to college. There was never any doubt that all of their children would graduate from college. Claudia became a successful real estate broker in Ashland, Oregon; Carol Ann worked as an executive for Whole Foods in California before becoming a college instructor in Portland, Oregon; Chester became a history professor in College Station, Texas.
A freethinker her entire life, Helen sent her children to church to learn about the Christian faith. They attended the Methodist Church in Fortuna but were encouraged to attend other churches as well. Helen enjoyed discussing philosophy and eventually joined the Unitarian Fellowship. While supervising her children’s education, Helen decided to fulfill her dream of furthering her own education. In 1956 she enrolled at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California, where she earned a B.A. in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology. She taught elementary school in Humboldt County for several years before the family moved to Santa Rosa, California, in 1961. Helen continued teaching elementary school, but after several difficult years the Dunnings divorced on amicable terms, including joint custody of the children.
Helen eventually met and married John Mills, a handsome U. S. Army cavalryman who had served in Vietnam and West Berlin before becoming a businessman in San Francisco. Helen and John were happy together, enjoying trips to the ocean and often staying up late reading passages from their favorite books to each other. After John was murdered in San Francisco by a gang of teenagers on June 18, 1967, Helen decided to give up teaching. She moved to Hawaii and earned a Master of Library Science degree at the University of Hawai’i. She then worked as a reference librarian in California and Oregon before moving to Mexico. There she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at Instituto Allende, specializing in batik and cloissoné. Her master’s thesis consisted of a series of large batiks portraying the Stations of the Cross (currently hanging in a Louisiana convent). Helen’s beautiful batiks and cloisonné jewelry continue to brighten many homes in Mexico and the USA.
Helen worked for two years as a librarian in Monterrey, Mexico, before moving to Louisiana as Director of the Jena Public Library. Two years later she moved to South Texas and served as Director of the Harlingen Public Library for several years. In 1988 Helen was recruited to become Director of the Kurth Memorial Library in Lufkin, Texas. Helen insisted on bringing the library (then a charitable trust) into the Lufkin city administration, and she successfully lobbied for the entire library staff, including the janitors, to become bona fide city employees with full health care and retirement benefits. Helen became a fixture in the Lufkin community – a librarian beloved by her patrons and employees. When she retired in 1996, the mayor of Lufkin declared it “Helen Mills Day.” Hundreds of citizens came together to celebrate Helen’s steady stewardship of their library.
After retiring, Helen moved to Bryan to be near her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. Her son, Chester S. L. Dunning, is Professor of History Emeritus at Texas A&M University. Helen’s daughter-in-law, Elsie Kersten, is an architectural and botanical photographer. Helen’s grandson, Stephen Kersten Dunning, is a musician, composer, and teacher at Harmony Science Academy in Bryan. While living in Bryan, Helen served again as a foster mother, this time keeping small children out of harm’s way during difficult CPS cases. Helen also continued to enjoy her favorite leisure activities: artwork, gardening, teaching neighborhood children how to sew, spoiling her cat Dolly Lama, eating fresh fruit, playing Scrabble wickedly, and reading voraciously. Helen moved to Waldenbrooke Estates retirement community in 2011. She enjoyed living there until January 2018, when she fell and broke three ribs. She then moved in with her son and daughter-in-law in Bryan.
Helen was a lover of books all her life, and she helped instill that passion in her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She was deeply interested in art, science, archeology, and anthropology. Her favorite book was Clan of the Cave Bear, and her favorite authors were Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Helen was a passionate humanist who deeply admired Mahatma Gandhi and despised pretension and crass materialism. She taught her children to do their best work, to care about others, and to feed their souls with love, art, and beauty. Helen was in her own way a pioneering professional woman who set high standards for herself and served as a fine example for younger working women many years before most Americans were accustomed to seeing professional women in the workplace. Helen was a lifelong Democrat who was proud to live long enough to be able to vote for a woman running for President.
As a child Helen dreamed of becoming a doctor, and throughout her life she firmly believed in the importance of science and education to the future health and well-being of humanity. Considering her body to be “no more than the box I came in,” she donated it to the Texas A&M University College of Medicine to help the next generation of physicians learn their trade. In that way Helen finally got to go to medical school.
Family members who predeceased Helen Mills include her father, Sid Davis; her mother, Louise Davis; her brother, Jim Davis; her first husband, Harold Dunning; her second husband, John Mills; her beloved cousins Doris Atkinson and Lewis Davis; and her niece Karen Atkinson. Helen’s surviving relatives include her daughter Claudia Lively and son-in-law Victor Lively of Gold Canyon, Arizona; her daughter Carol Ann O’Connär of Portland, Oregon; her son Chester Dunning and daughter-in-law Elsie Kersten of Bryan, Texas; her grandson Mario Goertzel and his wife Elizabeth Goertzel of Bellevue, Washington; her grandson Levi Brown and his wife Sarah Brown of Boulder, Colorado; her granddaughter Alicia Lively and her husband Terry Kau of Medford, Oregon; her grandson Stephen Kersten Dunning of Bryan, Texas; and her six great-grandchildren: Ari Goertzel, Megan Goertzel, Carolyn Goertzel, Leah Brown, Anora Brown, and Makena Kau.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Hospice Brazos Valley. The cheerful and dedicated nurses of Hospice Brazos Valley helped Helen and her family in too many important ways to count. We are deeply grateful to them.
Arrangements are in the care of Callaway-Jones Funeral and Cremation Centers of Bryan College Station. You may express condolences at CallawayJones.comPrint This Obituary