Henry Helson


Berkeley Friends Meeting 1927-2010 Henry Helson was born in June 1927 to Harry Helson, a professor of psychology, and Lida. Henry and his younger sister Martha grew up in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Though Henry’s mother was of fundamentalist Lutheran background, she took Henry and Martha to Presbyterian Church and later began attending the Merion Friends’ Meeting. Later all three became committed Quakers. Henry was a precocious child and his father hoped that his son would become a physicist, but Henry became a mathematician. Henry followed his father’s love of violin playing. Henry’s undergraduate years at Harvard were among the most important of his life. He took courses from eminent scholars in mathematics and other fields and made lifelong friends. During WWII Henry was under pressure to graduate early and enter the Navy, which he did. Henry did his doctoral work at Harvard. He turned down a position at UCLA due to the loyalty oath; then accepted a research fellowship and teaching position at Yale. At that time he met his future wife, Ravenna, who was teaching at Smith College in nearby Northampton, Massachusetts. They married in June 1954 and the following year Henry took a job at UC Berkeley. Their first child, David, was born in 1956, their daughter Ravenna in 1957 and Harold in 1960. A committed husband and father, Henry was also recognized for his outstanding achievements, was promoted to tenure in 1958, then to full professor in 1961. He was Chair of the Mathematics Department in 1965-66. In his years at U.C. he mentored some 20 Ph.D. students and kept up with many of them. After early retirement in 1993, at age 66, he remained engaged in mathematical work, making trips to India for professional exchanges. Henry transferred membership from Merion Meeting to Berkeley Friends Meeting in 1970. Over the years he served the meeting in many capacities: as member, trustee, treasurer and clerk of the Finance committee, where he became known as the financial whiz of the Meeting., the Nominating and Ministry and Oversight committees and during the last decade as member and clerk of the meeting’s Long Range Planning committee. He was representative to the Friends Committee on Legislation of California and volunteered with AFSC. Henry volunteered for the Park Hills Neighborhood Association. He published his books through Berkeley Books, among them a small book he called Essays, a collection of the articles and talks he had composed on topics important to him. Other books he published were by colleagues, including texts that were succinct and clear for students. Henry’s retirement years were active and rewarding. Henry and his wife enjoyed the great outdoors of the Bay Area. For years they missed Meeting alternate weeks, when they went to their beloved cabin in Inverness. They enjoyed get-togethers with their children, grandchildren and with siblings and other relatives, sometimes in Berkeley but also in Milwaukee, Boston, London, Hong Kong, Block Island, and Cape Cod. His interest in playing violin continued through his life and in retirement he decided to become the best violinist he could; for years after retiring he practiced violin or viola two hours a day. An avid chamber music player for years, he was a loyal member of Amphion and played Brahm’s First Violin Sonata with them late in life, after facing a difficult illness. He also started a quartet that performed publicly, including at Friends’ Meeting. In the last years of life Henry was often ill, sometimes very seriously, leading to his decision to disband the group due to the impossibility of continuing the level of practicing he thought necessary. He was delighted that his daughter and all three of his grandchildren play musical instruments, some professionally. In 2007, during an intermission in chemotherapy, Henry and his wife took their last trip, floating on a barge through Burgundy with his sister Martha and her husband. On the way they stopped in Paris to visit old friends and places they loved. In July 2010, he recorded his life story as a part of the Meeting’s Oral History Project. Henry passed away in January 2010 and is survived by his wife of nearly 56 years, Ravenna; his son David Helson and daughter-in-law, Janet Long, their daughter Sarah, living in England; his daughter Ravenna, her husband Randy Lipchik and their children Erin and Ahna, living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and his son Harold Helson, living in Arlington, Massachusetts.