By JANET HEIM
3:48 PM EDT, August 18, 2012
Helen Geyer was a faith-filled woman who raised six children on a shoestring budget and was happily married for more than 50 years.
“She accepted us all with all our faults,” said daughter Gisele Smith of Fairplay. “She never turned her back on anybody. She never had a nasty word to say about anybody.”
She gave her family more than money could buy — a loving home where they didn’t realize what they lacked in material possessions.
“I will say this about our life. Growing up in West Virginia, we were very happy kids,” said son Ray Geyer of Hagerstown. “We didn’t know we were poor. Everybody around us was growing up the same way. We didn’t know what we didn’t have. I loved my childhood. I wouldn’t change anything.”
“We had what we needed. We were loved,” Gisele said.
Helen Anderson was born in Morgantown, W.Va., and her family lived in the area while she was young. She had one sister, whom she remained close to although she lives in Nevada.
After graduating from high school in Clarksburg, W.Va., in 1942, Helen moved to Hagerstown to find work, and landed a job at Fairchild Industries.
Helen and Glenn E. Geyer Sr. met on a blind date, after Glenn’s brother backed out of the date. The couple dated for three months before they were married in November 1942, a month before Glenn was sent to the South Pacific with the U.S. Navy during World War II. He served for about three years.
Glenn was one of five children. His father died in 1922 when Glenn was 3 months old.
Unable to care for all of her children, Glenn’s mother sent the three boys to the Milton Hershey School, an orphanage in Hershey, Pa., and kept the two girls at home with her. When he was old enough, Glenn left the orphanage and settled in Hagerstown.
“Dad was the boss. You were born knowing that,” Ray said. “It worked out fine because she was OK with that. She weighed in on the big decisions. You never heard them argue, or a say a bad word once.”
The family refers to its life geographically — the early years in West Virginia in Morgantown, St. Mary’s and Wheeling, with the three oldest children — where Glenn worked as a printing pressman.
After about a decade, they moved to Hagerstown, where the three youngest were born and raised. The youngest of the six died of pneumonia in 2006 when he was 43.
The move to Hagerstown came in 1960, when jobs were scarce in West Virginia. Other family members headed to California, and Glenn later wished he had gone west instead of east, Ray said.
After the Geyer family moved to Hagerstown, it took Glenn about six months to find a job, which made for lean times. The older children remember their mother returning from The Salvation Army with cornbread, soup beans and powdered milk, which helped sustain the family until Glenn found a job.
They rented on Franklin, Mulberry and Prospect streets, paying rents equivalent to a mortgage payment. While the Geyers would have liked to own their own home, they never were able to scrape enough together for a down payment on a house, Gisele said.
Glenn worked for a printing company in Chambersburg, Pa., for about 10 years, then found a similar job in Hagerstown. Ray said in recent years, Helen had shared with him that her husband never brought home more than $100 a week during his career.
Ray recalls that their father got paid on Fridays, so Helen would do her weekly grocery shopping Friday evening or Saturday morning. She would return with one bag of potato chips, and each family member would get a bowl of chips and a glass of soda.
“That was our treat for the entire week. We never asked for anything more,” Ray said. “The rest of the week, it was three squares a day, but no treats.”
The family ate a lot of chicken because Helen raised and butchered chickens in their backyard. She filled in the gaps with homemade bread, cookies, cakes and pies made with fruit from their cherry, plum and apple trees.
“She always made sure we had what we needed,” said oldest child Diane Kittell of Greencastle, Pa. “She always made us feel special.”
Ray said occasionally, dinner consisted only of corn on the cob, which he thought was a treat, not realizing that’s all they had.
“She did whatever it took,” Gisele said.
Helen went to work as a seamstress at Dorbee Manufacturing Co. when Diane was 14, after the family moved to Hagerstown. She retired in 1986 at age 62. She also sewed clothes for her children.
“She managed to get me a nice graduation dress and new prom dresses,” Diane said. “I don’t know how she did it.
“She wasn’t just my mother, but she was my friend.”
Diane looked forward to the weekly grocery shopping trips she and her mother scheduled, just to spend time together.
Despite their finances, Helen always made Christmas special, even as the family grew to include 16 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
“She went to the dollar store and made sure everybody had something,” Gisele said.
One year, Helen made each family member a throw pillow, choosing fabric that reflected them. She hosted the Christmas gathering as long as her health allowed.
About a year before Glenn’s death in 1995, the couple moved to Myersville, Md., and lived near Glenn Jr. As Helen’s health began failing, she returned to Hagerstown and lived with son Jeff until he no longer could take care of her due to strokes and dementia that plagued her.
Helen moved into a nursing home for the last year-and-a-half of her life.
Church was important to Helen. She was raised Methodist, but joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1963 since that was Glenn’s religious tradition.
“She used to teach Sunday school,” Diane said. “She was there for whatever they needed her to do.”
“We went two, three times a week to church,” Ray said. “You had to be on your death bed to get out of it.”
The denomination believes in eternal marriage after death, so it was important to Helen that the couple be married in the Washington, D.C., temple, which they were on Dec. 3, 1993, more than 50 years after their first wedding. Their first wedding was in the church at the corner of Summit Avenue and Baltimore Street in Hagerstown.
Helen often did without during her life, but as her health deteriorated, her family satisfied her love for ice cream, especially Dairy Queen banana splits.
“She never gave up her faith, even when she was going downhill,” Gisele said.
“She was the sweetest, most selfless person I have known,” granddaughter Jessi Smith said in an email about her “Mema.” “She always gave and never expected anything in return. She did not judge. She loved you no matter who you were. If I can become half the woman she was, I will have accomplished something in my life.”
Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Helen P. Geyer, who died July 25 at the age of 87. Her obituary was published in the July 27 edition of The Herald-Mail.
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