Helen Castle Mead
To our friends and loved ones we shall give the most worthy honor and tribute, if we never say nor remember they are dead but contrariwise that they have lived:
“That hereby the brotherly force and flow of their action and work may be carried over the gulfs of death and made immortal in the true and healthy life which they worthily had and used.”
“The dead are not dead if we have loved them truly, if in our own lives we give them immortality, take up the work they have left unfinished, preserve the treasures they have won, and round out the circuit of their being to the fulness of an ampler orbit.”
“When are the good so powerful to guide and quicken, as after death has withdrawn them from us” Then we feel that the seal is set upon what was made perfect in their souls. They take their places like stars in a region of purity and peace.”
“Let us arise, therefore, and make for the departed a memorial in our lives. Let us re-
(18) -member that only the discharge of the duties of the heart can really console the heart. Also that we are not single out for a special judgment when we give up our dead; we but enter into a common sorrow, a sorrow that visits the proudest and humblest, that has entered into unnumbered hearts before us, a sorrow that should make the world one, and dissolve all other feelings into sympathy and love.”
My first friendship with Helen Mead was during those early years of her husband’s connection with the University, when their lives were suddenly overshadowed by a great tragedy. The loss of her brother and his little daughter by sea, as they were returning from Europe to the Hawaiian Islands, seemed to set apart these young people so lately come to Chicago, not only in the shadow of sorrow but to place them into the background of the mountains and waters of the Pacific.
As I learned to know her better, affection for her seemed to include those Islands to which
(19) she was so devoted and which in later years she shared with so many of her Chicago friends. It was a great enchantment to live in those Islands even for a few weeks. Everywhere we saw evidences of her mother’s wide philanthropy and the undaunted public spirit of her entire family which had gradually translated the old mission zeal into modern terms, as a primitive community had developed into a great commercial center. Yet this bustling modern community, with ships coming and going to all the ports of the Pacific, was still unlike any other, in certain important aspects. It may have been the influence of its missionary founders; it may have been due to the gentle natives who had never been conquered and enslaved and were therefore able to stand up as Americans from the very day of annexation. Certainly some benign influence makes the race relations of Honolulu more nearly ideal than in any other part of the world. Citizens born in China, Japan, Samoa, in Fiji, mingle both politically and socially with those born on the mainland of the United States, in Australia, in various European countries.
Helen Mead throughout her life in Chicago personified this lack of race discrimination. She was not only free from prejudice — from what is more politely called race antagonism — but she never approached the situation with that race consciousness which is almost sure to end in patronage and heart-burning. In instinct, as in action, she was the absolute democrat; and throughout the critical years which witnessed a large migration of colored people into the South Side of Chicago she never lost her simple and sincere attitude toward the situation. The city as a whole may well be grateful for this testimony of hers, a bright unconscious fame in the midst of much murky disquisition.
It was perhaps her spirit of youth, her elasticity, the spontaneity and tenderness of her heart, which kept her from all those blunders of moral enthusiasm, from those cruel deeds which are often perpetrated in the name of social duty. There was no touch of self-righteousness about her. She understood human needs and had no category of the worthy and unworthy. I recall the story of the drunken woman she found on the street and took into her own house — not to
(21) sober her with a cup of coffee and send her on her way, as most of us would have done, but to follow her up with weeks of hospital treatment until she was rehabilitated, to use the charity jargon.
Mary McDowell and I, with many another, have come to divide our friends into those who pity only the unfortunate, and those few others to whom Helen Mead belonged, who are interested in any complex human situation, realizing of course that wrongdoing has been mixed up in it somewhere, but that the victims are no more in need of help than the villain himself.
She steadily refused to yield up her belief in the potentialities of human life before any show of mere convention, and she declined to be intimidated in any of the fields of human conduct. I should like to apprise this quality of hers by quoting from an authority which certainly would please her missionary forebears, no less an authority than Richard Baxter himself:
He that will walk uprightly must not only difference between simple good and evil, but between a greater good and a less; for most sin in the world consists in preferring a lesser good before a greater.
Her hospitality had no reserves. She was constantly surrounded by gifted young people whom she helped in many ways to realize their highest possibilities. She often shared her home with them and gave them that sense of refuge which defines home as “a place where they have to take you in.” It was more than hospitality. She offered the basic materials of which a home is made — affection and protective care.
A very charming and gifted girl, a niece of Professor Mead’s, lived at Hull House for some months before her untimely death. I visited her near the end, which came in the same dear home, and Helen Mead and I had a half-hour’s talk on the meaning and significance of death in a few winged words which such a moment sometimes releases. I have thought of that conversation many times during the last sad months, when I have been privileged to see her. Perhaps it is best epitomized:
The free man thinks of nothing so little as death, for his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life.
Or the high admontion:
Do not despise death, but be well content with it,
(23) since this too is one of those things which Nature wills.
May I conclude with a quotation from Walt Whitman:
O sand and sacred Death
The sights of the open landscape and the high spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields and the huge and thoughtful night.
— Jane Addams