On Saturday, I called for an informal moment of silence in memory of Helen Gjessing who died at 94 on Jan. 29. We were on the beach at Hull Bay at a small gathering called by a group of young, determined Virgin Islands women activists – and a few good men – to gather information. By their dignified determination and intelligence, I was reminded of Helen. Another elder in attendance, an historian and environmentalist who knew Helen well, provided the four-word extemporaneous eulogy. “Helen was a warrior.”
That is the way that I saw her ever so many years ago when I made my own foray into the shadowy woodlands of environmental action and accountability on a journey that led me to the V.I. League of Women Voters.
Helen met me at the trailhead and guided me with her volumes of well-documented knowledge and history through the winding, trip-hazardous forest understory. Helen was most often soft-spoken but never mistaken for being soft-willed. She didn’t need to shout above the frenzied din of development defenders at the scores and scores of hearings she attended and testimonies she provided in her tireless efforts to stem the tide of wanton destruction of our environment. She had precedent, documents and the law on her side – along with a cohort of like-minded mostly, but not exclusively, women. And she knew it. She also knew it wouldn’t be enough to hold back the tidal wave of greed and avarice that had only just begun to drain, destroy and cover with silt our natural resources. But that didn’t stop her.
In a Source profile in 2009, the author quoting her astutely finished with, “she sighed,” instead of the journalistic preference “she said.” While some folks have a signature laugh, that sigh was Helen’s autograph, usually followed by her slightly woeful smile.
She slipped out of the U.S. Virgin Islands for her native New England in 2014. Aging, the unrelenting march of technological “advancement” and proximity to her children were likely the impetus. She had done her time, served well this community for most of her life. Nevertheless, I’ll bet it was not an easy move for her. But as she did with so many things, she made it without fanfare or lamentation.
I stand squarely in the generation between Helen and the new warriors. I have had the privilege to know both those who went before and those who will be left behind to carry on.
It turns out, she left us in good hands. She would be glad to know that and proud to observe the steady, determined vigilance these young warriors display.
As for our mentor-warrior, I like to think that somewhere in the great beyond, Helen is running untrammeled in the pristine fields and forests of her childhood and her dreams – that she cavorts in an eternally protected wilderness – like the one she envisioned for her beloved Virgin Islands. Run wild and free my hero. You earned it.