Helen Irene (Huston) Coverdell, 101, passed away on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, at Immanuel Lutheran Home in Kalispell.
Helen was born on June 9, 1917, in Moorcroft, Wyoming, to Roscoe and Mabel (Bell) Huston. She joined an older brother and one sister. The family later moved to Nashua, Montana, where her father again owned a lumber yard until early 1931. He was forced to close his business after the “crash of 1929,” when his customers could not pay off the credit he’d generously extended to them. The family moved to Polson where Helen graduated from high school in May of 1934 with a scholarship that helped pay her way for a teaching certificate from Western Montana College in Dillon; she “minored” in music, and worked part time as a housekeeper/maid/nanny to a professor’s family, to pay her room and board while living in their home at Dillon.
Helen accepted her first teaching position in Ferndale for the 1936-1937 school year; she taught the upper four grades (five, six, seven, eight) all together in one room. She had been dating Eldon Coverdell in Polson during the summer after college. They eloped to Sandpoint, Idaho, and were married Dec. 26, 1936. It had to be kept secret until the school year at Ferndale ended because of the “Morals” clause in her contract; she was single when she was hired and had to remain the same way to the end. She walked into Bigfork after school every Friday and got on the bus to Polson; Eldon brought her back in the dark on Sunday night. As soon as her teaching year ended, they began their life in Polson. The first of their four daughters was born in March 1938, and all were born in Polson. They welcomed another baby girl in March 1940, another April 6, 1942, and the fourth on July 11 of 1952. Helen was a stay-at-home mom until the fall of 1945 when she began “substituting” at St. Ignatius school. She was hired as a secondary full-time third grade teacher for the 1946-1947 school year. She and Eldon had bought a three-story apartment house in St. Ignatius by then. The family had moved from Polson in late 1942 when Eldon transferred from the Polson Safeway to Anaconda; he planned to get a better paying job at the smelter. They abandoned that plan and he was hired at the lumber mill in Bonner in late 1943. They bought an unfinished “care-needy” starter house in “Finn-town.” Eldon rode a bicycle the 3 miles to work in Bonner and worked his carpentry magic on the house when off work. Helen sold Avon products to help supplement the income; she also took back all of the empty toothpaste tubes, made of lead, which were collected for the war effort to make ammunition. She found and sent a dime every Friday, for the War Bond investing at the grade school in Bonner, with first grader Norma, the house was sold. Eldon had a new job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs at St. Ignatius, and the family moved when school was out in June 1945, to the apartment house “with the copper roof” in St. Ignatius. Helen applied for the teaching position at Essex in summer 1947. She was hired to teach all eight grades in the school/living quarters building on the hill above the railroad tracks. They sold the apartment house and lived in a one-room, incomplete cabin in Hungry Horse for the summer (what was to be the Crooked Tree motel later) — no plumbing and no electricity, just camping inside a four-wall roofed shell. The family move to Essex was complete in late August. Helen updated her teaching certificate (via a mail-in course) during that first school year, in the evenings — after teaching all day and taking care of her family. She was rehired for three more years there; she was the self-appointed protector/caregiver for any children in “problem” homes, and reported the problem to child welfare for resolution (several times in the four years). There were no phones back then; it was all done by her letter writing requests for assistance to her students. She was a wonderfully caring, conscientious teacher who went way beyond the call of duty to benefit her students’ welfare, whether a medical, moral or physical abuse problem. She put on a religious-themed Christmas program every year and organized several fundraisers to buy supplies for a music (or other unfunded) activity she wanted to add to the curriculum. She found ways to have bake sales, candy sales, plus community-attended carnivals; she bought percussion instruments for the school with the money and played her own piano (in the schoolroom) to add music to her teaching and mentoring duties. She had between 10 and 20 pupils spread over the eight grades every year — and no teacher aides back then. Essex was a busy railroad crew center with the hotel and restaurant open 24 hours a day, owned by Great Northern Railway. Eldon cooked on the graveyard shift for the first two winters but worked for H.F Construction (crushing red rocks for the railroad track beds) from April to November each year. He also did all of the janitor work for the school and kept the “light plant “generators working as part of the teaching contract (the free rent for our family). Helen applied for and was hired to teach the fourth and fifth grade combined class of surplus “dam” kids from Martin City (transported to Coram everyday).
For the 1951-1952 school year, the family moved to Coram in June 1951. It was a tough winter for Helen; Eldon worked for H.F Green in Spokane that winter, so Helen was afoot from home to the school and back home every day besides having to take care of Eldon’s horses and her family. They moved from Coram to Half Moon in April 1952 and Helen commuted to Coram to finish her school year teaching there. Eldon had found work for F.H. Stoltz Lumber Mill at Half Moon. Helen’s fourth daughter was born in July 1952 (in Polson). Helen was once more a stay-at-home mom. In early January 1956, Helen was forced back into the workforce, but not as a teacher. Eldon suffered a near fatal heart attack and was ordered to not work for a year. Helen had to have a full-time, good-paying job immediately, and Libby was the best opportunity for that; she was hired in the office of J. Neils Lumber Mill. Eldon, the love of her life, had another (fatal) heart attack four years later on Feb. 28, 1960. Helen was now a 42-year old widow with a 7-year-old child still at home to be raised. She had secure employment at the mill, however, had promotions (now St. Regis Timber Company office), and she retired in Libby after 25 years (in 1982). The mill had been sold to Champion International by then, and she was the head purchasing clerk with $100,000 purchasing authority in her name.
Helen remained single for 28 years, then married Frank Bonneau of Libby in 1988. They remained in Libby until 2003, when they relocated to Missoula Manor in Missoula. Helen was beginning to show symptoms of dementia by then and needed assistance at times. Frank’s daughter moved in and was caregiver to both of them in 2004. Frank passed away in July 2007.
Helen suffered a bad fall and moved into Immanuel Lutheran Home in Kalispell, on Nov. 1, 2007. She loved her new home and new family where she was so loved and tenderly cared for 24/7! She participated in all activities, loved bingo, and attended the in-house church and Bible study. She enjoyed reading and working on her word puzzles. Skip-Bo was her favorite card game with her oldest daughter, along with dinners out and Dairy Queen ice cream.
She was a devoted United Methodist Church member and very active in it from 1960-1988. After retiring in 1982, she ran the Libby Food Bank full time and established a “Crisis Center” to assist disaster victims (home fires, floods, etc.). She also loved playing in her League bowling games every week, and home parties with her single lady friends to play cards on Saturday nights in Libby.
Helen was preceded in death by her parents, brother Lisle Huston, sister Bernice Kershner, second daughter Nancy Coverdell Ostheller, third daughter Elda Rae Coverdell-Griffey-Petersen, husband Eldon R. Coverdell, her in-laws, Eldon’s parents’ sister Oma Wittwer and brothers Ralph, Donald and Robert, plus granddaughter Kelly Marie Griffey-Greenfield-Pope, great-grandson Kelly Greenfield, many nieces and nephews, son-in-law Donald R. Burns Sr. and Earl F. McLauchlin, then husband Frank Bonneau.
She is survived by oldest daughter Norma McLauchlin-Burns of Kalispell, youngest daughter Janice Coverdell-Shanck and granddaughter Lovelle in Tennessee, grandson Derrick (Cathy) McLauchlin Sr. and Eldon McLauchlin of Spokane,
Darrel Griffey Jr. of Pocatello, Idaho, granddaughters Sue McLauchlin-Thorp of Kalispell, Corrie Ostheller (Lee) Munyan of the Seattle area, Tracy Griffey-Bixby, and Dawne Griffey of the Pocatello area, plus 19 great-grandkids, and 23 great-great-grandkids, and a great-great-great-grandchild.
She was much loved and a lifetime influence of good for the students she taught in grade school so long ago. She touched so many lives so positively!
Graveside services will be at 3 p.m. today, Aug. 31, in Polson where she will share a plot and headstone with her Eldon for eternity, in Lakeview Cemetery.
Many, many thanks to all the wonderful caregivers at Immanuel Lutheran Home during Helen’s nearly 12 years residing there.
Friends are encouraged to visit the website, www.buffalohillfh.com, to leave notes of condolence for the family. Buffalo Hill Funeral Home and Crematory is caring for the family.