Helen Smith, Cafeteria Aide, 71-year Pen Pal

August 05, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen

Helen D. Smith, a retired cafeteria aide whose pen-pal relationship with a woman in Wales spanned more than 70 years, died of heart failure July 29 at Quail Run Assisted Living in Carney. The longtime Perry Hall resident was 83.

Helen Doris Shanklin was born and raised in Fork. She was a 1942 graduate of Towson High School and, during World War II, was employed as a secretary at Edgewood Arsenal.

While working at Edgewood, she met her future husband, George P. Smith, a chemical engineer, whom she married in 1949.

The couple settled in Perry Hall in 1962, where Mrs. Smith lived until moving to the assisted-living facility in 2007. Her husband died in 2003.

From 1969 to 1988, Mrs. Smith was a cafeteria aide at Perry Hall Elementary School.

Mrs. Smith's pen pal dated back to the late 1930s, when she was a student at Towson High and the school launched a relationship with a school in Wales in the United Kingdom.

Her original correspondent, Averill, who lived in Newport, Wales, had died before her first letter reached her. So, Averill's sister, Valerie, later Valerie Hopkins, wrote back and started a trans-Atlantic friendship and exchange of letters containing newspaper clippings, photographs, gifts and mementos that flowed across the ensuing seven decades.

"Personal stories of engagements, marriages, wars, news events, births, humor, celebrations, illnesses and other hardships were traded in over a thousand airmailed envelopes," said a son, Robert D. Smith of Glen Arm.

The two women became honorary aunts to both families.

Despite 71 years of a postal friendship, the two women only met once, in 1980, when Mrs. Hopkins came to Baltimore, Mr. Smith said.

"My mother sent her last letter, which was a birthday gift to Valerie, last week," Mr. Smith said.

Mrs. Smith was a longtime active member of Perry Hall Presbyterian Church, where she was newsletter editor for 30 years and where services were held Monday.

Also surviving are another son, David P. Smith of Perry Hall; a daughter, Gail P. Smith of Perry Hall; and three grandchildren.

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