By Eleanor Heginbotham
Helen Elson, 92, widow of the Reverend Dr. Edward L.R.Elson, died August 20 of natural causes at her home in the Ingleside Rock Creek. She was known to many generations of Washingtonians, especially those at National Presbyterian Church, as her husband’s helpmate, but she had a vivid life before and after those busy years as well.
As the wife of Edward L.R. Elson, the pastor of the National Presbyterian Church (1946-1973) and Chaplain of the Senate (1969-1981), Mrs. Elson hosted large annual open houses; knew every president from Truman to the elder Bush, and was a frequent guest in the White House, in many embassies, in the homes of the larger-than-life Washington personalities of the ’50’s and ’60’s, and the simpler homes of parishioners. With her husband she traveled in the Middle East, meeting leaders from King Hussein to Golda Meir; in Europe, staying, for example, in the Culzean Castle as the guests of church member and friend, President Eisenhower (Scotland had granted it for the General’s use during his lifetime); and in Liberia and Indonesia to visit her children. The Elsons were also close friends of a broad range of religious leaders: the Billy Grahams, the Norman Vincent Peales, chaplains of every faith; and members of Washington’s Islamic community.
However, her own story before, during, and after those busy years was not well known outside her family. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, she moved as a child to a then-sleepy La Jolla, California, where her parents built up considerable real estate holdings. There, with two little brothers and a sister, she became a strong swimmer and tennis player. She was in the queen’s Mayday court in her senior year at La Jolla’s Bishops School. In her senior year at UCLA on the then-new Westwood campus, she married Dr. Elson, the young minister (a widower for four previous years) of the La Jolla Presbyterian Church. She had worked as his secretary and she had also taught dancing to blind children. The letters from “pastor to parishioner” are models of propriety but also evidence of the gathering interest on the part of the young minister, who later described the “severe case of ‘heart-sickness’” that caused him “to accelerate [his] ecclesiastical appointments in the Berkeley area.” Their marriage in 1936 cut short her official education but not her lifelong learning. During the war, when Dr. Elson became Chaplain Elson and served in Europe and elsewhere, Helen Elson balanced care for the first two little girls with the management of her father’s La Jolla Manor Hotel.
Later adventures in the working world would include a stint at Catholic University in the office of one of the administrators. A talented seamstress, for a period in the ’50’s she became also a serious milliner, designing and making hats for family weddings and many of her own hallmark large picture hats. She was an enthusiastic and competitive bridge player and an avid reader, especially during the summer months in the family summer home in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where she nurtured close friendships in the local community. Always eager to attend readings and plays at local venues, in her 80’s she attended a summer program on British Romantic Poets at Oxford. She introduced her children to literature, and later read what her children wrote and even sometimes attended their classes.
From 1946 on in Washington, where Dr. Elson presided over the change of the Covenant First Presbyterian Church to the National Church and later over the move from Connecticut and N to Nebraska Avenue (an emotional, fiercely debated move), Mrs. Elson balanced the representational requirements of a pastor’s wife with raising four children during tumultuous times for any mother. In 1966 she was honored as Washington, D.C. “Mother of the Year.” She assisted all her children – Dr. Eleanor Heginbotham of North Bethesda, Dr. Beverly Elson of Washington, D.C., Savannah, GA, and Madison, Virginia, Mary Faith Elson Suarez of Martinsburg, W VA, and David Edward Elson of Sharpsburg, W. VA and her three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren – with their varied careers and projects. She was also an encouraging and appreciative mother-in-law, who was, in turn, loved as a valued friend by the spouses of the family. A member of National Presbyterian Church, she helped on countless bazaars, gave (with trepidation) the necessary “devotionals” at women’s groups, and late in life, served as an elder and a volunteer in the Library.
At the time of her death she resided at The Ingleside at Rock Creek (formerly Presbyterian Home), and that would have been the end of her story except that during her final years and up until the last hours her invariable kindness, her faith in and love for people, and the “beautiful smile” about which every visitor commented made such an impression that during her last hours and for days thereafter helpers from cleaning crew to charge nurses and fellow residents stopped in to tell her children that she had enriched their lives simply by being the Helen Elson she had always been. Her interest in the archives of the National Presbyterian Church leads her family to ask that those who would like to do so, honor her through donations to the NPC Library in her name.