Friday, June 20, 2014

Helen, Part VI: Life After Frank

Helen Marie (Timmons) Strukel, c1970

Barely two months before her fifty-second birthday, Helen Strukel was left a widow. She and her husband, Frank, had settled into their routines in their brand-new house for barely over a year. The home that had represented their future together was now an all-too-silent reminder on the outskirts of Elkhart, Indiana, that she was to grow old alone. Frank Strukel's death at the age of forty-six likely brought as many thoughts of disgust and disbelief to Helen as it did grief and despair. Would they had saved and scrimped and worked so hard to plan for a comfortable future had they known Frank would have none? Were there vacations and trips dreamt of that were put off for their retirement years? Was living life postponed in exchange for planning and saving for living a life?

Although Helen had faced her share of obstacles, she never had to do so alone. Like generations of women before her, she transitioned immediately from the daughter of William Timmons to the wife of Eldon Miller to the wife of Frank Strukel. During her journey she had become the mother of five children, and at the time of Frank's death at the end of 1968, they ranged in age from nineteen to thirty years old. But unfortunately, few of them were readily available to help her adapt to an unexpected widowhood. Her two boys, Jerry and Ted, lived in California near their father. Her eldest daughter, Sandy, was married and living in Elkhart, and working for Miles Laboratories (later purchased by Bayer). Although their relationship was not one of alienation, it was nonetheless not a close one. They were living in the same city, but in completely different worlds.

Helen's daughter Carol was nothing more than a secret that she carried alone now that Frank was gone. Perhaps losing her husband brought back the pangs of despair at losing their daughter decades before. How nice it would be to have another reminder of Frank near her, yet how devastating knowing that there would never be a chance of the two ever meeting.

Helen's support during this time came from the most logical source: her youngest daughter Dianne. Helen lost a husband, but Dianne had lost a father, and that shared loss required they both be the support for the other. At nineteen years old, Dianne was already married and the mother of a two-year-old son. She needed the help and guidance of a mother, as much as Helen needed the companionship and support of a daughter. In less than two years' time, Dianne would provide Helen with another grandchild to spoil. Although Ted and Jerry had children by this time, Dianne's son, John, and daughter, Lisa, were the only grandchildren Helen had complete access to as she forged ahead as a young widow on her own. Her clerical job at Long's Lock Shop in Elkhart gave her the structure and routine to get up every morning and interact with the world around her. Helen Strukel was no shrinking violet. The loss of her husband was a jarring shock to her world, but she had survived adversity before. This was just a bump in the road. A mighty sizable bump, yes, but Helen was determined as ever to move forward. Work and family provided the road map for this part of her journey.

But even with a job and family she enjoyed, Helen's busy days still ended in lonely nights. Much like the mystery surrounding Helen's first chance encounters with Eldon and Frank, the details surrounding James Wardell Elkins' entry into her life in 1971 are obscure.

Frank and Helen had known James Elkins during their marriage, although how and when their paths crossed is unknown. James, born on 17 April 1923, was a native of Grantsburg, Johnson County, Illinois, the eldest son of James William Harrison Elkins, an illiterate farmer, by his second wife, Inez M. Robertson. As a child he was called Wardell, and he completed a grade-school education in rural Grantsburg.

Wardell's mother, Inez was sixteen years old when she married forty-three year old Will Robertson in 1922. After bearing him seven children, she divorced him in 1941 while the youngest was still an infant. She brought her children to Elkhart, Indiana, and three weeks after her divorce was final, she married Willard Barnum who had been widowed just two months before.

It was this home that James Wardell Elkins left and enlisted into the service of the United States Army on 19 March 1943 at Fort Benjamin Harrison. He was a Navy combat veteran during World War II, and participated in the Normandy landings in 1944 and the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Even after his return stateside and his honorable discharge, James served in the Marine Corp Reserves for several years. At the war's end, he came back to Elkhart and made his home with his mother and stepfather on Middlebury Street.

As the 1950s dawned, James was living the life of a bachelor. He was employed performing factory work at the Buescher Band Instrument Company in Elkhart and living at the Hotel Bucklen downtown on Main Street. It wasn't until his early thirties that he decided to settle into married life with Dorotha L. Weaver, a woman just under three years his junior. Through their union, he gained a young stepson, Randy, and welcomed his own son, James David, in 1957. The family moved to 1115 Davis Street in Elkhart in the late 1950s. James left Buescher Band Instrument in 1962 and began selling shoes for the Charles Chester Shoe Company. Dorotha worked for C. G. Conn Ltd., a band instrument manufactory in Elkhart.

But selling shoes and domestic tranquility was not the long-term plan for James. He and Dorotha divorced in 1964, and ironically James returned to living downtown in the Clifton House Hotel - which was the rechristened Hotel Bucklen after its much needed 1958 renovations and facelift. He did not remain single for long. In 1967, he married Della Bradley. In 1969 his forty-three-year-old first wife died, leaving him sole custody of his young son. The chaos that ensued likely contributed to his divorce from Della in 1970.

So this was the James Wardell Elkins that entered Helen Strukel's life in 1971. They both had been previously married twice; and they both had spouses who died in their forties. James was working as a machine operator at Northern Indiana Brass Company in Elkhart - Frank Strukel's old stomping grounds. Moreover, they were both single, middle-aged, and desired companionship. Helen struggled to maintain the property of her modest home, but that was not only Frank's domain, it was his pride and joy. James had discussed putting a swimming pool on the property, and he was eager to have a house and yard in which to tend, tinker, build, repair, and maintain. There were many reasons why the two of them needed each other. The courtship progressed at breakneck speed, and despite the misgivings of those around her, Helen Marie Strukel and James Wardell Elkins were married in Elkhart, Indiana, on 27 June 1971.

Helen realized her grievous error immediately. Once James had moved into the house, he made it clear that the money he made was his money, and his money only. Helen made her own money, and she could continue paying for the household expenses as she had done before their marriage. But he also made it clear that those expenses now included those involved with taking care of a new husband and stepson as a dutiful wife was required to do. This was not what Helen had signed up for. The iron-fisted rule of a domineering husband ended with her marriage to Eldon Miller in 1946. She was not going to assume that role again. Ever.

Tensions were high from the beginning. A July cookout seemed a good idea to help ease the frustration and provide some recreation for the newlyweds. After all, they were both thrice-wed and set in their ways. It would take time to navigate the choppy seas upon which this ship had sailed. While Helen busied herself preparing food for dinner and setting the table, James masterfully prepared three steaks on the grill. James took one and gave the second to his son. When Helen reached for the third cut of meat, James reprimanded her. "I bought those steaks with MY money. Those are for me and my boy. Not for you."

Helen responded by asking him to leave. Forever.

James Wardell Elkins moved out of the modest little Strukel home at 112 Jay Dee Street on 20 July 1971 after twenty-three days of marriage. Three days later, Helen filed for divorce in Elkhart Superior Court #1. James never responded to the divorce petition. He never appeared in court after issuance of a summons to do so. The court granted Helen a divorce on 8 October 1971 after declaring James defaulted in the matter.

Life without Frank created a momentary lapse in judgment for Helen. She thought she needed a husband to make her life complete and give it meaning. Life with James, albeit brief, brought clarity and strength back to her world. On hindsight, her life as Helen Marie Elkins brought a roll of the eyes and wave of her hand as if to casually brush away a foolhardy decision of the past. I had heard the story only briefly, and even as a genealogist, I had never bothered to seek out the details of my grandmother's third marriage until recently. I couldn't even recall the man's name nor find it in my notes. But what I once thought to be an insignificant footnote to her life, I believe now that it served as a reminder to Helen that she was a strong and capable woman who could make her way in the world without having a man to guide her.

The last chapter of her life would not be about the daughter of William Timmons, nor the wife of Eldon Miller, nor even the wife of Frank Strukel. It would be all about Helen.


  1. I LOVE this story! My grandmother was married twice, and divorced twice after having thrown both men to the curb in turn! She was a fiesty, hardworking and loving mother to her 3 children. Her dignity, her family, and her children came first. She once told me that "not everyone is cutout to be married" and she lived with her boyfriend into their 80s, always refusing to ever be wed again. Go Helen, Go Alverta!

  2. I hope you will be continuing your blog post. I have been following from the beginning and so enjoy reading it.

  3. I just discovered your blog last week. Have been reading a little every day since. Willard Barnum's first wife was my mother's Aunt Gertie (Gertrude HAEB Martin). I found his marriage application to Inez quite by accident and it makes me wonder about their relationship before Aunt Gertie died.

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