Bittinger: Remembering Helen Stafford

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(HOST) The late Helen Stafford managed both public and private life with style and grace.  Commentator Cyndy Bittinger has this remembrance.

(BITTINGER) I remember the smile on Helen Stafford’s face whenever we spoke about her husband – it was so wide and her eyes sparkled.

Helen died recently after a long life of 93 years.  She has left a legacy of devotion to her family and to her state. Her husband, Robert T. Stafford, was a Vermont governor, Congressman, and U.S. Senator.  She never wavered in her support for him and for their commitment to public service.  Helen Stafford was an important member of her husband’s team for 50 years, both at home and in the hallways of the United States House and Senate until her husband retired in 1989.

I had the good fortune to know Helen for about fifteen years, mainly through her husband.  In retirement from public office, Senator Stafford had assumed the presidency of the Coolidge Foundation where I was the Executive Director.  My last visit with Helen was in 2008 when we recalled her life story as well as her husband’s.

And her lifetime coincided with so much in Vermont history.  She was the daughter of a paper mill owner in Bellows Falls.  Because she was born in 1918, she missed the log runs down the Connecticut River, but must have seen the paper mills in action until they were closed due to labor unrest in the 1920s.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan always said her life began when she met Ronnie.  Senator Stafford often told us his life began when he met Helen. He saw her coming down the stairs at a Middlebury College sorority house for a blind date and decided, "Helen was the girl for me."  He was quite a catch, being a football player in his senior year, but even as a freshman, she was "pinned" to him.

Their 68 year marriage stood the test of time and their love was even celebrated in an unusual way when Senator Stafford declared at the age of 87 that "love is one of the great forces in our society and in the state of Vermont"  referring to his support for same sex marriage.

Helen had fun in her life.  The family, which included four daughters, enjoyed trips to a cottage on Lake St. Catherine in Poultney and boat rides on Lake Champlain. Governor Stafford promoted the joys of skiing in Vermont with wife and children on the ski trail in 1959. Photographers flashed that advertisement around the nation! When he took up flying his own plane back and forth to Washington, DC, she was the co-pilot.  Helen also offered to babysit for the Leahys when they first got to Washington thus earning their friendship and affection for many years.

On hearing of the death of Senator Stafford in 2006, journalist Joseph Davis, said, "They may not make any more like him.  But if we ever get a few more of his kind in government, there will be hope again for this country."  The same might be said of Helen by his side in Washington, in the air, and here at home.

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