September 24, 1934 – December 2, 2020
Helen Hendry Huff was born on September 24, 1934 in Tremonton, Utah to David and Teressa Hendry. She grew up in Boise, Idaho, the oldest of four sisters, and attended Boise High School. After graduating summa cum laude from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Helen received a Fulbright Scholarship to study drama and opera set design in Austria in 1957-1959. There, she worked in Vienna and Saltzburg under Caspar Neher, the renowned scenographer, librettist and collaborator of Bertold Brecht; spent time with Leontyne Price, who was emerging as a world class operatic soprano; named her Renault “Mimi” and the little frog figurine attached to its dashboard “Rudolfo” (of La Bohème); and declined the ardent marriage proposals of a hatmaker with a box at the Vienna Opera House. On her return to the US in 1959, she was preparing to work for Neher at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, when she found something she liked better in Richard Huff, whom she decided to marry two weeks after they met. Iconoclasts of kindred spirit, Helen and Dick fought many battles together, against illiteracy, intolerance and anything else either of them thought unfair or unimaginative. Though their two daughters, Teressa and Dorothea, sometimes came home to find that Dick had invited a hitchhiker to stay the night or Helen had given all the pots and pans to a newly arrived refugee family, life was never boring. In any event, Helen didn’t cook unless it was for a Latin banquet she was producing with the group of neighborhood kids she taught Latin. Helen made a dozen historically accurate togas, and Dick did not hesitate to take the doors off their hinges to make the low tables she required so that guests could recline in ancient Roman style. Their long battle with Dick’s cancer ended on her birthday in 1982, but she carried his spirit through all her many later adventures.
Helen earned masters degrees in reading education and in adult education and curriculum development, and received several National Defense Education Act Fellowships to study adult and vocational technical education in Germany. She devoted boundless energy to her vibrant and creative professional life. She was the Director of Adult and Continuing Education at Boise State University from 1970 to 1984, where she developed programs for adult literacy, English as a second language, vocational education, out of school youth, displaced homemakers, and high school equivalency preparation and testing. She expanded these and many other services exponentially throughout the state of Idaho, taking them wherever the need was — to prisons, to agricultural worker and Roma communities, to those experiencing homelessness. She served in numerous local, state, national and international adult education associations and was appointed by President Carter to the National Advisory Council on Adult Education.
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, a local church brought a group of Vietnamese refugees to Helen’s “Learning Center” and the English classes she developed for them launched her decades of work for refugees. From 1980 to 1984, she served as the Idaho State Coordinator for Refugee Affairs. She wrote and implemented the first Idaho State Plan for Refugee Resettlement, developing a statewide network of public institutions of higher education as refugee service providers. In 1984, at the request of Governor John Evans, she organized the Idaho International Institute to serve as a voluntary agency for refugee resettlement in Idaho. Her approach to resettlement was individualized, comprehensive and deeply respectful. She studied the histories, hopes and strengths of the individuals, and the capacities and cultures of the communities receiving them, to help create strong relationships and successful new lives. The refugees she brought to Idaho made it a better place. And her efforts enriched the lives of many refugees, including one who became her beloved son-in-law.
If an idea large or small seemed fun, intriguing or worthy, concerns that it was unconventional, improbable or difficult rarely deterred Helen. She devised a scheme for refugees to use the warm water from Boise’s geothermal cooling ponds to raise shrimp, retrieving the breeding stock from Hawaii herself. She took training programs to far flung enterprises in the People’s Republic of China; ran a residential facility for pregnant teens and women in need, filling it with educational and social resources; developed job opportunities for welfare recipients and prepared them to succeed as employees; helped persons living with HIV to get health insurance; and worked in various capacities with organizations devoted to addiction treatment. In 1994, Helen took her expansive vision of adult learning to the Training Department of Riyadh Al Kharj Hospital in Saudi Arabia. There she stayed until 2004, and pursued many interesting projects, made many friends, and had many adventures (and two Salukis). In her last years she enjoyed wearing and distributing wristbands from her grandson’s high school gay straight alliance, and disseminating its message.
Helen was constantly exploring, perpetually in service of an underdog, and frequently catering to an actual dog. She loved many dogs of her own, and also delighted in stealing the affections of other people’s dogs. She was known to drive off with her son-in law’s German Wirehaired Pointer in the passenger seat, pull into a drive through, and buy him two hamburgers. On visits to Maryland, she brought suitcases full of pig knuckles and other tasty items from her favorite Boise butcher for her daughter’s American Bulldog, whom she taught to recognize the spelling of g-o-o-d-d-o-g-.
Helen filled her grandchildren’s lives with “trips to parallel universes,” metal detectors, “wall walking,” “condo school,” bumming, naptime visits from elves, and naked finger painting. She facilitated their early and prolific careers as self-published authors of such works as “Rosie and the Bee Sting” (2007), “Antonia and the Elevator” (2006), and “Aub’s Winter Flower” (2004). She created countless binders full of reading aids, coloring pages and custom-made stickers to teach everything from basic grammar to paleontology, or whatever was the current passion of the child before her. Helen and the grandkids (clothed in later years) produced many masterpieces together, but none were quite as spectacular as the curiosity she instilled in their minds, and the openness she nurtured in their spirits.
Helen was preceded in death by her husband, Richard Huff; her parents, David and Teressa Hendry; her sister, Cecelia Lange; and her infant brother, David. She is survived by her daughters and sons-in-law, Teressa and Vincent Zywicki, Dorothea Lay and Kevin Murphy; her grandchildren, Rosamund Dorothea Zywicki and Aubrey Richard and Antonia Helen Lay; her former son-in-law, Matthew Lay; her sisters, Dorothea El Mallakh and Daveda Bundy; her nephews and nieces (who remember summer visits when she used the vacuum hose rather than a brush on their curly locks); Jaynalene Etessami (a.k.a. the Girl from Rock Creek); and Goldie, Mark and Jodi Davich (a.k.a. Trudy Moorehead), who was her best friend and confidante for 46 years. We thank the community of Grace Assisted Living for its care, Cat Schmidt and Cookie for their special friendship that Helen treasured, and Allcare Hospice for helping us say goodbye during this terrible Covid-19 pandemic. No memorial service is immediately planned as Helen would not want people to gather in unsafe conditions, but friends who wish to honor her may donate to knowyourrightscamp.com, immigrantjusticeidaho.org, or casaruby.org. An online guest book is available at www.bellavidafuneral.com
My prayers go out to all you and all your family, Thea, during this time. I only met your mother one time at work, but I know your mother was a very special and beloved lady. I am glad to have a had a chance to experience a “moment” of her joyfulness and exuberance!
I came to know Helen through her daughter, Thea, and treasured the times she visited Bethesda and I was always enthralled by her enthusiastic stories. I am blessed to have known her, even for a short time. My prayers and thoughts to her family
What a beautiful obituary, and what an extraordinary person Helen was! To Thea and your whole family, I’m so deeply sorry for your huge loss. Now I understand where you and your children derived your superhuman talents and your kindness. Much love,
I wanted to express you condolences to both of you on the loss of your mom. I still remember the wonderful times at your house and impromptu parties. I still cherish the poetry, music, and beauty that your family freely welcomed me in to share. I know we’ve lost touch over the years but pleae know that I think of you often.
I met Helen many, many years ago when Teressa was my student at Borah High. I so admired the way you raised Teressa,, and I later wanted my daughter to be raised in the same way. Bravo, Helen Huff! What a job you did, and what a legacy you created.