Helen Ray has seen many changes in 105 years

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By Panzi Blackwell

One-hundred and five years ago, the World’s Fair was in full swing in Forest Park in St. Louis. Some of the amazing facts about that event were: it featured an 18-foot high lighthouse built of pure salt; there were 142 miles of exhibits in the eight main places for people to explore; and 90 million feet of pine was used in constructing the framework for the buildings.

And the same year, 1904, a little girl was born in St. Louis to Ann Gibbons Kupferer, whose parents were emigrants from Ireland, and Charles Andrew Kupferer, whose parents came to this country from Germany.

That little girl, Helen (Kupferer) Ray recently celebrated her 105th birthday with two parties.

Meet Helen, a delightful, gracious lady with lots of memories to share. Many will remember her as the office receptionist for the late Dr. Mark Greer and the late Dr. Miller Greer.

Happy Childhood Days

Helen had just arrived home from a cake party held in her honor at the United Methodist Church.

Her appearance eminently belies her age. Dressed becomingly, with earrings and a pearl necklace, and her hair styled neatly and simply, she smiled and delved right into memories of her childhood. She seemed a little amazed herself that she feels as good as she does and still retains so much of her memory.

If her memory kind of lapses at times (after all, this is 105 years of living she is describing), she usually recalls the subject more clearly a few minutes later.

Born on Sept. 21, 1904, Helen said that she has led a busy, but good life, and that she always enjoyed her family.

“I was born a Catholic, but I had relatives that were Protestant,” she said.

“One of them (a family member who was Protestant) came to live with us, and my grandpa was living with us at the time. I went to the Catholic Church with him, and I went to the Protestant Church with her.

“I told my mother I liked to go to the Christian churches better, because they served refreshments. What I didn’t know was, it was Communion, not refreshments. I didn’t know any different, and I suppose I took it every time it was passed,” Helen said.

Happy Childhood Memories

“I’ve had a very good life,” she said.

“My father had his own business, a butcher shop and grocery store. It was an ordinary life, but a good one. We enjoyed the simple things.”

Helen recalled childhood friends.

“Helen Morris, we were about the same age. She had older brothers. I also had a good friend, Marcella, who was one of my school friends. I thought he was my beau,” she said, smiling. He lived on Maple Avenue in St. Louis.

“We all went to school at that time, to Emerson School, (an elementary school). I lived Blackstone and Page – that’s where my father’s butcher shop was. We lived upstairs in what they called a flat. It was a great life.

“I was pretty spoiled, I guess,” she said.

“I had a lot of fun in school. When I was little, my schoolteacher walked by our house to go to school. I would walk to school with her every day and take her an apple from my father’s store.

“I didn’t cook; they wouldn’t let me near the kitchen. But I learned to sew and crochet,” she said.

Helen’s mother died when she was only 5 years old. Her father later hired a housekeeper who also looked after his young daughter.

He later married Marie Ohn, and they eventually moved to Vandalia. Two children, Charles A, Kupferer Jr,. and Celeste Louise Kupferer, were born of that union.

Helen thought of Marie as a mother. “I never thought of her as my stepmother,” she said.

“We used to go to the Meramac River, and swim and have a picnic. I’ll never forget those days,” she said.

“We had a delivery horse for the butcher shop and store deliveries. That horse would be groomed, and every Sunday, my dad would tell them to bring the horse around and we would go for a ride.”

Sometimes her father would rent a horse and carriage. “That’s how we would spend the afternoon. Sometimes, we would go to the cemetery with a picnic basket,” she continued. Other families would also gather there.

“I had a little red chair that I sat on in the carriage, because there wasn’t enough room on the seat,” she said.

Other times, her father would rent a horse and buggy, and they would go to the Mississippi River front, where they would board a boat that would take them and their friends, with their picnic baskets, down the river, where they would dock and enjoy an afternoon of games and food with friends and family.

“We played hopscotch, hide and seek, and kick the can. I’ve kicked many a can,” she said.

“I’d be outside playing and I’d hear a car, a block or two away. It would go by and I’d just be amazed. I remember the ambulances and the noise they made,” she said.

“I saw a lot of changes over the years, but you see, I went along with them and didn’t realize they were changes.

“You look back and can see the difference,” Helen said.

“I have a wonderful memory. I can remember everything, but there are some things I’d like to forget, and I can’t tell them,” she said.

She recalled going to the “speak easies.”

“You would just walk in and sit down, and they would serve you drinks. One night, two men came in the room and said, ‘This is a holdup.’ It almost scared me to death,” Helen said.

“They took a big ring from a man. I didn’t have anything, but my friend had a big diamond ring, and she put it in her mouth. I would have too; I would have swallowed it!”

“I saw Charles Lindberg and was almost close enough to touch him. He went by my father’s store, and we could wave at him.”

Getting Married

Helen’s family moved to Greenville, then Vandalia, where she met Leland Ray when he worked at the Johnson, Stephens & Shinkle Shoe Factory.

“I was 18 (when) we got married and my mother didn’t even know it,” she said. “We just went home and told the folks we were married.”

Leland had a daughter, Donna, and a daughter, Carole, was born to Helen and Leland. They lived in Vandalia for years and Carole graduated from Vandalia High School. They then moved to St. Louis, where they lived for several more years before returning to Vandalia to stay.

Her Priority- Her Family

Helen enjoyed her family and mentioned them throughout her conversation. She was a skilled seamstress and made all of her daughters’ clothes. Her furniture is covered with beautifully-fitted slipcovers she made.

She told of picking up scraps of material off the floor in a hat-maker’s shop and making clothes for her dolls. “I had to sew them by hand; I didn’t get to use a machine for a long time,” she said.

Grown Up

“I wanted to work, and my folks didn’t want me too, but I did. I worked at the condenseary, like Pet Milk; helvicia is the proper word for it,” she said. “I worked at the glove factory in Greenville and at the shoe factory. The wages were terrible back then.”

“I was a Girl Scout leader and I enjoyed that. I took part in everything I was able to do with children.

I worked for both Dr, Mark and Dr. Miller (Greer). I enjoyed working for them and the work was interesting. Not too tragic,” she said.

“There were some things that were sad, but most of it was just something from one day to the next and it would be better. I started working there when I was in my 40s. I tried to do the best I could, and people seemed to like me pretty well,” she said. She retired while working for the Greers.

The family showed horses, and Helen was described as “an elegant-looking lady driving that beautiful horse.”

The Cherry Tree Adventure

A few years ago, when her granddaughter, LeeAnn White (Carole’s daughter) was 14, she said, ‘Grandma, let’s make wine.”

LeeAnn, now grown and living in Indiana, was present to tell the story.

“We picked all the cherries from the three cherry trees in the back yard, stomped them, made wine, bottled it ,stored it, and drank it that Thanksgiving.

On the (almost) more traditional side, Helen has always wanted to go on a Safari. She also likes to read and garden, and she likes to watch TV, mainly Animal Planet and archeology shows. She used to walk the short distance to Cathy’s Beauty Shop, but now Carole takes her.

Her most special memories and the most-important thing in her long life are those of her family, still today.

Her daughter Carole White, moved back home in 1997 to live with her. Helen is blessed to stay in her own home, in the house she and her husband bought from her grandfather.

The house has been in the family since 1899. Leland, his two brothers and two sisters, were all reared in the old home.

She has some advice for the young people of today.

“Like I told my own children, you have to watch your step and you can’t do everything you want to do.”

That’s sound advice from a lady who should know – she has been following it for 105 years and is still going pretty strong.