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By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN â With the passage of Helen J. Beaven, 95, on July 14, the town lost another of its treasures â a woman who generously shared her time, talent and wisdom and was of the generation of women who jumped in to fill whatever need arose.
With Rita Perry, her best friend of 70 years, Helen started the first Girl Scout troop in North Kingstown, in the North End, and guided assorted PTAs for years.
They were involved in politics, too, putting on fundraisers and dinners for the local Republican Party. Ritaâs husband, Charles, was a state senator and, on one occasion, Helen â chairman of District 2 â was drafted to run for office.
Shortly before Christmas, in 2009, I was privileged â really, I consider it a blessing â to spend an afternoon with the pair as they reminisced about the bond theyâd shared for seven decades.
âLike a long-married couple,â I wrote in this very column, âthey finish one anotherâs sentences. They laugh uproariously over memories of youthful exploits.â They described themselves as âbetter than best friendsâ and Rita went so far as to confide that she called her pal âSister Helen.â
Thinking of my favorite book, Anne of Green Gables, I asked them if, like Anne Shirley and Diana Barry, they were âbosom friends.â
âEverybody always called us bosom friends,â said Rita, nodding. âOf course we had big chests.â
They had big hearts, too, and Helenâs broke when Rita died last July at age 91.
After savoring the special bond that had withstood the test of time â their lives intertwined in a tapestry of public service, dedication to family and mutual respect â Helen was bereft by the loss of her cherished companion.
âItâs tough,â she said, speaking through tears. âSeventy years is a long time to be friends. We ran everything in town â dances, clambakes, picnics. We first met when our kids were in kindergarten.â
Rita, a resident of the Stony Lane area, had four daughters; Helen, who lived on Pojac Point, had two sons and a daughter. âThere were so many things at school,â Helen said, âand we were always together, planning and doing.â
At one time, both were involved in three separate PTA groups â elementary, junior high and high school â and took turns passing the presidency and vice-presidency back and forth.
In still-outraged voices, each tripping over the otherâs words, they described an ill-advised attempt by a naval officer to seize command of the PTA. âRemember during fifth or sixth grade,â began Rita, turning to Helen who continued the tale. âThat navy man thought he was going to mow us down.â
He was wrong.
âWe laughed our way through a lot of years,â Helen said.
They were never mere figureheads, preferring to roll up their sleeves and tackle the next project whether it was a marathon of cupcake baking for school, summer camp Scout adventures at Juniper Hill, or organizing barbecues and auctions for the GOP.
As I sat with them that afternoon, I was enchanted. Helen maintained the conversational flow with Rita contributing the occasional wisecrack to color their memories.
They were incredibly lively and sharp and I understood instantly why they had been role models and mentors for generations of young women, why Helen had been a pioneer in pursuing male-dominated elective office in the â70s.
Helen was prompted to tell a more recent story of how she and Rita did something together that was totally unplanned.
Helen made a quilt to be raffled as a fundraiser for programs at the Davisville Library. After someone stole it, she and her daughter made a second. Helen was 92 at the time of all that arduous sewing which have made a younger, less committed person throw up her hands.
At the drawing, she was given the honor of reaching into the bowl of tickets and choosing the winner.
âI scrambled all the names really well, picked one and handed it to the girl who was going to make the announcement,â she recalled. âI didnât even look at the ticket.â
To everyone else, the outcome was hilarious when the winner was proclaimed: It was Rita. Helen, on the other hand, was mortified until she learned how much her friend loved what sheâd made.
âShe took it home and hung it in her room.â
Carol Mudge, Ritaâs daughter, said of Helen and her mom, âThey were lovely, lovely friends. When Helenâs husband was alive [that couple and her parents] would travel quite a bit. They went to Europe together.
âThey were forever friends. Helen was so wonderful when Mom was confined to the house. She was so intelligent and had a lot to say. The needlepoint pieces she made for my mother were exquisite; she had so many talents.â
Among Helenâs many pursuits were singing, embroidery and making miniature dollhouses. As Rita observed, âYou belonged to everything that was on the road.â
On that magical afternoon, Helen summed the friendship up simply. âEverything we did worked and was fun,â she said. âWe enjoyed each other so much.â
I interviewed Helen for the last time in May as I prepared a story on the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts. It saddened me that she had become frail and her wonderful memory was fading.
Personally, I donât think she ever recovered from Ritaâs death but I am cheered in my belief that theyâre together again, organizing Heaven and bossing St. Peter around.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org