Helen Walsh

Helen Walsh (July 26, 2011)

Helen R. Walsh, a registered nurse who helped her physician husband establish Project HOPE in the 1950s, which brought health care to developing countries and offered disaster relief, died Thursday from congestive heart failure at her Bethesda home.

She was 89.

"Helen and Bill Walsh were larger-than-life figures who convinced President [Dwight] Eisenhower to give Project HOPE a ship that became an icon of America's humanity," Dr. John Howe, Project HOPE's current president and CEO, said Tuesday.

The daughter of Norwegian immigrant parents, the former Helen Hjordise Rundvold was born in Wild Rose, N.D. Her father was a carpenter, and her mother was a homemaker.

In the 1920s, her family moved to Tampa, Fla., before settling in Washington in the 1920s. She was a 1939 graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Takoma Park, where she was a talented basketball player.

Mrs. Walsh earned her nursing degree in 1942 from the Sibley Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, where she met her future husband, Dr. William Bertalan Walsh, while training to become a nurse.

A day after she married Dr. Walsh in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy. During the war years, she worked as a private duty nurse.

After the war, the couple lived in Washington and then Chevy Chase, and finally moved to Bethesda.

In 1958, Dr. Walsh, who was a noted Washington cardiologist, founded Project HOPE — Health Opportunities for People Everywhere — whose mission was to bring health care to developing nations, assist with medical disaster relief and train health workers.

"Bill came up with the idea for Project HOPE because during World War II, he had served his country aboard a hospital ship in the Pacific, where he saw tremendous need," said Dr. Howe.

Dr. Walsh had been called in as a consultant after President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, and the two men became close friends.

President Eisenhower later appointed Dr. Walsh as co-chairman of the Committee on Medicine and the Health Professions of his People-to-People program, which was designed to help developing nations.

Dr. Walsh proposed a peacetime hospital ship, and he and his wife raised $750,000 that was needed to refit the USS Consolation, a former World War II 15,000-ton hospital ship that had been built as the Marine Walrus in 1944 at Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in Chester, Pa.

"After the war, he came back to Bethesda, and during the Eisenhower administration, convinced the president to give him a ship, and the rest is history," said Dr. Howe.

In 1960, the SS Hope left San Francisco on its maiden voyage to Indonesia with its white gleaming hull marked with 15-foot-high red letters spelling out "HOPE." When the aging vessel was retired in 1974, it had sailed more than 250,000 miles across the world on 11 humanitarian and medical missions.

"The Hope was on the cover of Life, Look and Saturday Evening Post magazines in those years as it plied a lot of the world with American volunteers onboard. And to think it was the genius of two energetic people from Bethesda," said Dr. Howe.

Mrs. Walsh played a very active role aboard the Hope. She decorated the ship's public areas, advised stewards and had a close working relationship with the nursing staff.

During the summer months, she and her three sons volunteered aboard ship.

"We all worked for Project HOPE when we were growing up, as summer volunteers," said a son, Thomas S. Walsh of Bethesda. "Because I was the youngest, I began working in hospital supplies inventory while my older brothers assisted in giving inoculations."

Mrs. Walsh co-hosted many fundraising events throughout the nation, including the annual HOPE Ball in Washington, which was for many years a prominent social event.