Helen Corneli

Date of Birth

June 9th, 1926

Date of Death

May 9th, 2014

Memorial Meeting

Santa Fe Monthly Meeting


Helen Corneli, aged 87, died peacefully on May 9, 2014 in Salt Lake City after a brief cascade of illness and injury. She was preceded in death by her husband, Clifford M. (Kip) Corneli, who died in 2009.

Helen was born on June 9, 1926 in Almora, India to a missionary family who were members of The Disciples of Christ Church. She grew up in India and, after graduating from The Woodstock Missionary School in Uttar Pradesh, tutored young maharajahs in English. During WWll, she returned to the United States in a convoy. Little did she know as she was steaming into Boston Harbor, that the man who was to become her husband was shipping out on a troop transport.

After her return to the US, Helen earned a BA in English and History in 1948 from Washington University in St. Louis. It was there that she met her husband, Kip. After graduating from Washington U, she and Kip married and Helen continued her education, receiving a Master’s Degree in English in 1950 from the University of Illinois, where they lived for two years in a 6 x 12-foot trailer. After a treasured year in Paris, they came home to start a family. Their two sons were born in St. Louis, MO and their daughter in Madison, WI.

Helen began her teaching career in 1962 as a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Steven’s Point. She continued to teach for almost 30 years, obtaining her PhD in Education along the way in 1973. From the time her children were small, she modeled an amazing combination of "mom," "working mom," and "professional", relishing every aspect of her very full life.

For years, she drove 30 miles each way to her classes, taught all day, and then came home and cooked dinner –complete with dessert for the children and Kip! Then back to work, grading papers from her Freshman English students. On weekends, the whole family pitched in doing chores around the farm and, at the lunchtime break, Helen regaled the children with stories of her childhood in India, sending them into fits of laughter over her “adventures”, helping to make the long workdays fun.

Towards the end of her academic career, as the Director of International Programs at UWSP, Helen helped a generation of UWSP students study abroad. In this capacity she brought three of her favorite objectives together; forging connections with people around the globe, educating youth as a way to foster understanding and peace, and seeing as much of the world as possible.

While teaching at UWSP, Helen and Kip were introduced to Quaker Meeting for Worship. After an unsatisfying experience at a church in Stevens Point, Helen began looking for a spiritual alternative. She and Kip were introduced to Madison Friend’s Meeting by a colleague and were immediately drawn to the silence, the being led to speak, the non-dogmatic approach, the notion that there was "that of God in every person", the fact that there was not a doctrinaire pastor telling them what to think, and the strong sense of social activism.

She was, her son, Howard, recalled, well aware of and interested in Quaker history all her life and had told her children stories about George Fox, William Penn and Quaker abolitionists. Finally finding the spiritual sustenance she sought in Quaker Meeting for Worship was the icing on the cake.

Continuing to stay on top of Quaker history, she was fond of noting in the 60s that Richard Nixon was said to come from Quaker stock, but if so, "George Fox would be rolling over in his grave."

In 1991, Helen retired and she and Kip moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, while continuing to travel across the US and around the world. During that time, Helen wrote “Mice in the Freezer, Owls on the Porch”, a biography of the naturalists Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom who had been her friends and neighbors. The book was published in 2002 and won a Best University Press Books Citation in 2003.

Helen was a vibrant member of the Santa Fe Monthly Meeting of Friends and served the Meeting in various capacities. She and her husband, Kip, agreed to be co-clerks shortly after coming to Santa Fe. They went to a FGC clerking workshop as soon as they could so they could do it well. She was on the gardening committee and was a founding member, along with her husband, of the Santa Fe chapter of Veterans for Peace. She was an active correspondent on the Iraq war and sent many letters to Congressmen and Senators from New Mexico as well as to the local newspaper.

Her hospitality was wonderful. Many Meeting members have fond memories of gatherings at the Corneli's round dining table, eating wonderful Indian food and talking for hours. Helen and Kip hosted many committee meetings and clearness committees. Guests of Meeting, Meeting members and lots of others who needed housing for a while stayed in their guest room. One member remembers Helen’s generosity as she traveled across the country to offer bedside support and care after the member’s surgery.

Helen loved to devour good books, cook delicious meals, and keep a beautiful garden, but she was never truly happy unless she was doing some good in the world. She was an avid student of social justice. It seemed to her children that she knew which newspaper was the “liberal” one in every city she lived in and that was the one she brought home to read.

She researched and would indignantly explain every injustice in world history, from the enclosures of the commons, starting in the 13th century ( “'to raise sheep, can you imagine?” she would say) through the Dreyfus affair, the Pullman strike, and so on down to the details of the nurses’ grievances in Santa Fe hospitals. She knew about many of the heroes and especially heroines of social progress, and could explain the plot and literary significance of many progressive books or writers.

Helen was an accomplished person: highly educated, a college professor, a world traveler, author, organizer, leader and activist. She was also a remarkable person because of her capacity to love. Love was at the core of her very existence and she offered it generously to all. We can truly celebrate with Helen, the passage of a wonderful and amazing life, one that left a great legacy for her children, her family and her friends.

Helen is survived by her children Howard, Salt Lake City, UT, Steven, Pennington, NJ, Miriam Corneli, Kathmandu, Nepal and Danelle Lee, Saratoga, CA and by her sisters Win Griffen, Pasadena, CA and Pat Sheafor, Frankfort, MI, her eight grandchildren, and a new great-grandson.