Retired educator relishes covert 'thank you'

Posted by Lucy Luginbill on June 8, 2014 

Food was flying faster than a drive-thru restaurant at rush hour. And the cost wasn't what the lunchtime diners expected.

"All it takes is one throw," retired assistant principal Helen Nash reminisces about the food fight on her first day of cafeteria duty. "I had on a white linen skirt and jacket and I was standing there," she chuckles now at the scenario, "and some of the food splashed on me. I didn't do anything to stop it, I just watched."

But what the Hanford High School students didn’t know was their new administrator had a photographic memory. Back in her office, the names of the perpetrators were noted and before end of day they all stood before her.

"I told them, 'You don't have cafeteria privileges the rest of the semester,'" Helen recalls the 15 students' horrified looks as she added, "'unless your mom or dad comes to school and sits with you during lunch.'" She smiles broadly, "We had a lot of kids eating out in the courtyard."

The memory is still fresh for the 89-year-old, who says there was never another food fight in the 10 years she managed discipline at the Richland school. And never "crossing the line" is a lesson she learned herself at an early age in rural Texas when she decided to skip out on school.

"A bunch of us girls got together and we said, 'Let's just sneak out in the Mattador Ranch pasture,'" Helen recalls of her teen escapade into the adjoining field. "There were a lot of cows out there, and I got my jacket caught in the barbed wire."

It was while the girls were trying to get her loose that they were abruptly interrupted.

"All of a sudden I heard this voice, 'Helen Juanita Kelly! What are you doing?'" the spritely woman recalls with clarity when the principal — her father — showed up. "When my parents called me that, I knew I was in bad trouble."

But what Helen also learned about consequences and discipline, was that underlying it all is strong love, wanting the best for the child. When the 16-year-old graduated from high school and wanted to go to the University of Texas, her mom and dad made a telling decision.

"I was accepted, but my parents thought I was too young to live in a dorm," Helen said. High school was only 11 years back then. "So my dad resigned his job and we moved to Austin right on the edge of the campus."

Helen graduated with her bachelor's degree at the age of 19 during the war years. Eventually, marriage and her husband's job at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation brought her to Richland — and to her career calling: classroom teacher and then later, administrator in charge of discipline.

"I was strict, so I don't know how I was able to make so many lasting friends," Helen says about her student friendships through the years. "Often it's been the ones that I was the hardest on."

What seemed to shine through was her underlying love and concern for the students. Some, as adults, have had opportunity to tell her personally how she impacted their lives. One did it covertly when Helen went through the Richland McDonald's drive-thru for a hamburger and milkshake a few weeks ago.

"When I got to the window, somebody two cars ahead had paid for me," the senior citizen shakes her head in disbelief. "Then the cashier told me, 'She knew you at Hanford when you were a principal.'"

It's been more than 25 years since Helen retired after 30 years in education, but never absent from the hearts of her grateful students.

Discipline combined with love can make a lasting difference — and that's food for thought.

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