Helen Gressett described herself as “a very strong adherent of social justice, even before we really knew what that was,” and “a feminist, even before I heard the word.” At 62, after a career as a social worker, she helped establish Monterey County’s first child abuse prevention unit. It was uphill work because doctors and teachers didn’t want to admit the abuse was taking place. “I chose it because it was so unpopular,” she admitted with a smile.
Gressett then went to work for the Salinas prison, readying inmates for release. “Working in the prisons was fascinating because I’m not easily intimidated. They said they could sell me anything, and I said, ‘You couldn’t sell me a pair of shoes.’” She and her photographer husband Jess befriended many of the ex-convicts, and Gresset found the work immensely meaningful. “Making a difference, that’s what I love, addressing wrongs. It keeps you going, and one thing leads to another.”
In 1989, when Gressett was in her late 70s, she and Jess got in their 21-foot motor home and moved to Santa Fe, where they knew no one. She joined the League of Women Voters to meet people — “joining groups of people who like to do what you like to do is a primary source of contacts and friendship,” she advised me — and promptly got involved with the Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center. Gressett helped set of a program of court monitors in the First District Court, training women to attend trials and record data. “We appeared in all violence cases in court, not as an advocate for either side, but to record accurately what was going on,” she explained. “The victims needed that feeling that somebody was behind them, because they were not treated well, and the judges loved us.” The program is going strong.
Though handicapped by limited transportation, at 93 Gressett continued to do outreach and public relations for the Rape Crisis Center. “I give a lot of talks at the churches and things like that,” she told me. “I’m a good recruiter. I love doing what I did, and what I’m still doing to a smaller extent, and people are attracted to that feeling of involvement.” Sitting in her immaculate living room, seduced by her confidence and good cheer, I was ready to sign up.
The tiny condo irked her. “I’ve had to make a lot of changes and I must say I don’t like all of them. I like living in a big comfortable house and having dinner parties for 8, and that kitchen is like a closet,” she commented. But to Gressett, flexibility was paramount. “Its good to change when you need to, to accept what is inevitable. Fighting change is like hating people, it only hurts you.” Her 51-year marriage was an exceptionally happy one, but Gressett’s adaptability helped her adjust to widowhood as well. “I love being the boss,” she admitted happily. “I don’t have to think, ‘Well would he like that movie? Would he want to go here?’ I just do what I want to do, and it’s fun.”
Gressett considered the apartment merely “a temporary stopping space” in her life. “I know change is the only constant in our lives, so I know things will be different. How? I don’t know but whatever comes, I am ready.” She was. On June 10th, 2008, less then six months after our conversation, Helen Gressett died peacefully at home surrounded by family and friends. (See comments after this post). One of them, Darin May, wrote, “she lived every day for what it was. There were no regrets. If I don’t follow her example, it means I wasn’t paying attention.” I’m paying attention too.