Community remembers local volunteer and historian

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman

From sleeping bags to Santa, Helen McMahon was always looking for ways to help other people.

McMahon, who passed away in June at age 96, was known as an artist, historian and volunteer in the community. Her life will be remembered at a community celebration, open to the public, on Saturday, July 19 at 2 p.m. at the Northshore Performing Arts Center in Bothell.

HelenHelen McMahon was named to the Northshore Wall of Honor in 2012 for her community service. (Courtesy photo)“I can’t say enough good things about her and her giving ways,” said Joyce Driscoll, a longtime friend of McMahon’s. “She will be greatly missed.”

Friends described McMahon as enthusiastic, loving, a good conversationalist and a giver of good advice and gifts.

“Very, very friendly, but she’d get something through faster than other people,” recalled Suzi Freeman, who worked with McMahon through the Woodinville Heritage Society. “She stuck to her guns.”

McMahon lived in Woodinville for almost all her life. Her parents, the Andersens, moved to Hollywood Hill in 1923, when she was 5, and she and her husband John McMahon lived in the house on the farm her father built for the rest of their lives.

Her memories of growing up in Woodinville made her passionate about preserving the area’s history. She invited groups of students from local schools to visit the farm and learn how to churn butter.

McMahon’s farm lifestyle was how she and Driscoll became friends.

“We met her in 1974 and it was over a duck,” Driscoll recalled. Driscoll and her husband Art owned a pair of ducks, and one duck was killed. They put up a sign saying they wanted a duck, and the McMahons provided one.

When the Driscolls were building a home in Monroe, the McMahons took in them and their animals — a cow, two horses, a cat and a pregnant St. Bernard.

“We were city folk going country, and they taught us to be true country,” Driscoll said.

She combined her interests in history and art to create a coloring book, now available through the Woodinville Heritage Society and local schools, with scenes of historic Woodinville.

“She was so proud of the coloring book, and she should have been,” Freeman said.

A local quilting group turned the coloring book into a quilt, with each quilter picking a scene from the coloring book to make a panel for the quilt. The quilt is now kept at the Heritage Society after traveling to libraries and festivals for several years.

“We shared our mutual love of crafting,” Driscoll remembers. “She was great with taking material and making things.”
With the Sammamish Valley Grange — one of the many organizations in which McMahon was involved — she sewed sleeping bags out of old blankets to give to homeless people. She also made dresses out of pillowcases to donate to people in Africa.

She also used her artistic talents to make logos and signs, such as the logo for the Bothell High School Alumni Association, an organization she founded with Bev Niemeyer Schmer in 1994.

“She had the idea, and she was always enthusiastic and had a great vision for things,” Niemeyer Schmer said.
The BHS Alumni Association aims to connect alumni, provide scholarships and keep the school’s history alive. Now, the organization has a database of 24,000 alumni and hosts events such as an annual alumni picnic.

helen2BHelen and John McMahon played Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus for community groups for 34 years, among many other volunteer projects. (Courtesy photo)Her husband John shared in much of her volunteer work. The two delivered day-old bread from bakeries to food banks, were named Citizens of the Year by the Woodinville Rotary Club and played Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus for community groups in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

“That was just part of Christmas in Woodinville, her being Mrs. Santa next to John,” recalls Linda McCune, a member of the Woodinville Heritage Society, who remembers always taking her kids to see the McMahons dressed up as Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

McMahon often expressed her opinions on community issues by writing letters to the editor to the Woodinville Weekly, advocating for preserving the Sammamish Valley and “keeping things simpler and not more complicated,” her grandson Todd McMahon said.

“Taking her talents and putting them toward volunteering ... not wasting her talents, but leveraging them, was what she was really good at,” Todd McMahon said. But besides her community service, her friends and family have more personal memories of her.

Todd McMahon remembers her cooking pies and Danish specialties like pickled red cabbage and aebleskiver (a doughnut- or pancake-like dessert.) He remembers her growing crocuses and vegetables in her garden, and playing card games like pinochle with friends around the farmhouse table.

“We had some of the best talks,” Freeman recalled. “We’d just sit around her table talking.”

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