By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – With the passage of Helen J. Beaven, 95, on July 14, the town lost another of its treasures – 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. Rita’s husband, Charles, was a state senator and, on one occasion, Helen – chairman of District 2 – was drafted to run for office.
Shortly before Christmas, in 2009, I was privileged – really, I consider it a blessing – to spend an afternoon with the pair as they reminisced about the bond they’d shared for seven decades.
“Like a long-married couple,” I wrote in this very column, “they finish one another’s sentences. They laugh uproariously over memories of youthful exploits.” They described themselves as “better than best friends” and Rita went so far as to confide that she called her pal “Sister Helen.”
Thinking of my favorite book, Anne of Green Gables, I asked them if, like Anne Shirley and Diana Barry, they were “bosom friends.”
“Everybody always called us bosom friends,” said Rita, nodding. “Of course we had big chests.”
They had big hearts, too, and Helen’s broke when Rita died last July at age 91.
After savoring the special bond that had withstood the test of time – their lives intertwined in a tapestry of public service, dedication to family and mutual respect – Helen was bereft by the loss of her cherished companion.
“It’s tough,” she said, speaking through tears. “Seventy years is a long time to be friends. We ran everything in town – dances, clambakes, picnics. We first met when our kids were in kindergarten.”
Rita, a resident of the Stony Lane area, had four daughters; Helen, who lived on Pojac Point, had two sons and a daughter. “There were so many things at school,” Helen said, “and we were always together, planning and doing.”
At one time, both were involved in three separate PTA groups – elementary, junior high and high school – and took turns passing the presidency and vice-presidency back and forth.
In still-outraged voices, each tripping over the other’s words, they described an ill-advised attempt by a naval officer to seize command of the PTA. “Remember during fifth or sixth grade,” began Rita, turning to Helen who continued the tale. “That navy man thought he was going to mow us down.”
He was wrong.
“We laughed our way through a lot of years,” 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 ‘70s.
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.
“I scrambled all the names really well, picked one and handed it to the girl who was going to make the announcement,” she recalled. “I didn’t even look at the ticket.”
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 she’d made.
“She took it home and hung it in her room.”
Carol Mudge, Rita’s daughter, said of Helen and her mom, “They were lovely, lovely friends. When Helen’s husband was alive [that couple and her parents] would travel quite a bit. They went to Europe together.
“They 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.”
Among Helen’s many pursuits were singing, embroidery and making miniature dollhouses. As Rita observed, “You belonged to everything that was on the road.”
On that magical afternoon, Helen summed the friendship up simply. “Everything we did worked and was fun,” she said. “We enjoyed each other so much.”
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 don’t think she ever recovered from Rita’s death but I am cheered in my belief that they’re 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