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Helen B. Simpson, the oldest living McDaniel College alumnus and an active Mount Airy resident, dies

Helen B. Simpson was inducted into Mount Airy's Hall of Fame in 2002.
Helen B. Simpson was inducted into Mount Airy's Hall of Fame in 2002.

Helen B. Simpson, the oldest living McDaniel College alumnus who was serving as secretary for the Class of 1938, died in her sleep Nov. 2 at BridgingLife Dove House in Westminster. The lifelong Mount Airy resident was 104.

The former Helen Baker Leatherwood, daughter of Bradley Leatherwood, a Farmer & Mechanics banker, and his wife, Lillian Baker Leatherwood, an educator, was born and raised in Mount Airy where she graduated in 1934 from Mount Airy High School.

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Her maternal grandfather, John T. Baker, was principal of the first high school in Damascus, Montgomery County, according to her son, John R. Simpson of Mount Airy.

“Main Street in Mount Airy when she was born was a dirt road and their family horse was named Maude. Her father later purchased a Ford Model T,” her son said. “There was also a sanitarium, the Robert Garrett Sanitorium, across from the high school where they would bring sick children out from Baltimore for the fresh air.”

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“She went to Mount Airy public schools and in those days there were not any school buses, so she walked a mile to school and back home every day,” The Baltimore Sun reported in a 2017 article. “She did not mind the walking except for in the pouring rain or in the icy weather. Sometimes her neighbor, Norman Hood, would drive her to school along with his daughter. During high school, she developed a passion for music and sang second soprano. She was not much of a sports person but loved to jog and dance.”

“There was a place at the end of town called Ridgeville, near Mount Airy, where Brown’s, a dance hall, was located and she loved to dance,” her son said.

For the first three years at what was then Western Maryland College, Mrs. Simpson was a commuter student until moving onto campus her senior year.

“She used to drive three or four other Western Maryland students to college and back home each day,” her son said.

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In 1938, she graduated from college with a major in home economics and a minor in biology, and began teaching home economics and biology for the next three years at the old Manchester High School in Manchester.

She attributed her college years to transforming her from a “self-described timid follower to a community leader,” according to an article in The Hill, the college’s alumni magazine. “It was my time at Western Maryland College that gave me the confidence to do these things,” she explained in the magazine interview.

In 1941, she married Vernon Reynolds “Ray” Simpson, who had graduated from Western Maryland College in 1936.

“December 7, 1941,” Mrs. Simpson told The Sun in a 2006 interview. “We were visiting my husband’s folks around Christmastime. We had spent the weekend and had just finished dinner. I remember, I was wearing a wool dress, it was red and black. I sat at the end of the sofa and turned on the radio. [The attack on Pearl Harbor] was the news. We were horrified.”

Her husband enlisted in the Army and the young couple moved to Fort Hood, Texas, for training, and while there, Mrs. Simpson gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Diane.

The war years were particularly hard for Mrs. Simpson. She lost her father to cancer, and her brother Jack was killed in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. While her husband served in Europe, Mrs. Simpson and her daughter returned to Mount Airy to live with her widowed mother.

After the war, her husband was discharged from the service and returned to Mount Airy, where they built their own home. Mrs. Simpson became a homemaker, raising their three children.

Her husband, an educator, who later became assistant principal at Damascus High School, remained in the Maryland National Guard, where he attained the rank of colonel.

The couple immersed themselves in the civic and social life of Mount Airy. She was chair of the PTA ways and means committee. They were founders of the Mount Airy Players, a local theatrical group, which became a fundraising arm for the local PTA, and remained active with the organization for the next 40 years.

Mrs. Simpson produced, directed, costumed and publicized their production as well as acting in their biannual plays. She was also a Cub Scout leader, served as chair of the Heart Fund Drive, and was an active member of the Mount Airy Garden Club.

She was a member for more than a century of Calvary United Methodist Church in Mount Airy where she had become the first woman lay leader and was the church’s longtime historian. She also played a leading role in its drama program for children, writing pageants and directing and costuming these productions.

Because of her lengthy involvement in the affairs of Mount Airy, she was inducted into the town’s Hall of Fame in 2002.

She also volunteered as the town historian for Sykesville and with the Mount Airy Fire Co. from 1941 to 2010.

At her college, she was a member of the reunion committee for 1978, 1983 and 1988; worked on phone-a-thon; was a member of the Physical Dimension Campaign Committee; and participated in the 1993 Remembrance Ceremony.

At 104, Mrs. Simpson was still serving as secretary for the Class of 1938, a job she began in 1967, where she compiled class notes for The Hill. With her death, the only two remaining class members from the Class of 1938 are Doris Haines Dixon and Alfred Goldberg.

She was the 2004 recipient of the college’s Alumni Community Service Award, and earlier, in 1978, had been presented the College Service Award.

After the death of her husband in 2000, she continued gardening and living independently, her churchwork and spending time with family. Several years ago, she moved to Wildwood Park of Mount Airy, a retirement community, where she continued living independently, and enjoyed gardening, cooking and exercising at a nearby senior center.

Recently, after suffering a fall, Mrs. Simpson moved to Golden Crest Assisted Living in Westminster.

Her son said he attributed his mother’s longevity to “walking a lot,” and not drinking or smoking.

She followed a diet of fruits and vegetables and “because she had been a home economics major, she knew what right foods to eat,” he said. “She also knew the power of positive thinking and I think that helped her throughout her life.”

A celebration of life service was held at her church Monday.

In addition to her son, she is survived by another son, David V. Simpson of Playa del Carmen, Mexico; a daughter, H. Diane Simpson Krell of California in St. Mary’s County; 11 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

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