Remembering Helen Slate

Wed, 07/20/2011 - 2:12pm

Helen Slate passed away peacefully on June 9, 2011, at the Scallop Shell Nursing Home in Wakefield. She was 87 years old. Helen was an active member in the Block Island community before moving off the Island in 2000 due to increasing health issues.

Helen came to the Island in June of 1947 at the request of Herb and Mabel Dawley to work as a hostess and waitress at the Mohegan Tap Bar, now a private residence on Lakeside Drive. Years later, a school teacher, also new to the community back then, recalled the first time she’d ever seen Helen. “It was at the Mohegan Tap, she was wearing a silver dress and she was beautiful.”

It had been a job for a summer season but in the fall, Helen married Albion Slate. They soon moved into his family home at Bridgegate Square and Helen found herself a landlady running a boarding house in the  summer. She had come to Block Island at a time when the post-war prosperity that was sweeping the nation was far, far away, but she later remembered those years with her children as one of the happiest times of her life.

Like many year round residents, she held many positions to make ends meet: land lady, cab driver, Historical Society docent, cashier and waitress. She was a “Jill” of all trades and was a perfectionist at whatever task was at hand. Whether it be cooking, sewing or giving tours  while taxiing, Helen made sure she studied up on the subject, so she would be ready to answer whatever question was thrown at her. She enjoyed food and came to find joy in cooking, amassing a treasure trove of cookbooks and recipes. She was generous with her talents, not only performing but dusting off unused skills to be the make-up artist for dramatic school productions.

Helen moved off-island for a few years following her divorce in 1972. In pre-internet days, when there was only one boat in winter, it was difficult to raise a family and pursue further education on the mainland, but Helen availed herself of all opportunities, especially studying nursing. She completed her studies and while she never became fully certified she retained all that new knowledge and used it where she could.

Older people first knew her as Barbara, then Helen Barbara, and finally, Helen. She explained one year — over a birthday cupcake — that she wasn’t assuming a new identity in mid-life when she returned to the island, but that Helen was and had always been her given name. Barbara was one of those things that happen, an assumption that a nickname was a derivative of Barbara when it was really a play on her surname, Beebee.

Helen was a raconteur, always able to laugh at herself be it over her early unschooled attempts at cooking or a first try at a different job. Most people have some “what were we ever thinking?” moments; Helen had a unique ability to bring hers into the sunlight and diffuse them with laughter. She also imparted the lesson that trying something new was never a mistake as long as one’s approach was enthusiastic.

She enjoyed music and performed in many performances as a soloist at island churches, then with the Ecumenical Choir. A choir appearance that many still recall was her rendition of the “Indian Love Call” in 1990. She captivated the whole audience and gave them one of the gifts she so freely shared: laughter.

She even wrote a column for the Block Island Times in the 1990’s called “Give Em Helen” offering her own insight into island life. Had she set out with the sole purpose of building a resume of widely varied experiences she couldn’t have done better.

One of her later tasks was selling raffle tickets for a quilt to benefit the Harbor Church. No one did it as well as she, sitting on the Front Street, greeting strangers, convincing them they wanted not one but five, not five but ten tickets. She was an older lady but she was still the outgoing and gracious hostess she had been when she first came to Block Island and wore that silver dress.

Helen is survived by three children, Patricia Stetson, Della Slate and Leslie D. Slate and one grandson, Brian Coyne.

In true Helen fashion, she made all her funeral arrangements years in advance and requests in lieu of flowers, donations are to be made to the Block Island Rescue Squad.

A memorial service will be held at 3:30 pm on August 12, 2011 at the First Baptist Church of Narragansett, 205 Kingstown Road in Wakefield, RI.