Helen Tyler (White) Stewart(1921 - 2013)

Helen Tyler Stewart (White)

December 8, 1921

March 4, 2013

Helen Tyler Stewart (White) died from complications of Alzheimer's disease. She was an accomplished woman: Nevada civil rights leader, artist, mother, teacher, political activist, proud member of the NAACP, and ACLU, and founding member of the Unitarian Fellowship in Reno. Born in Witt, Illinois to the Reverend John T. Stewart and Inez Stewart, this spirited middle child of five spent her childhood swimming and playing in the woods near Bonne Terre, Missouri, revealing the fearsome spirit that translated into social activism and creative adventure in adulthood. At 16 she entered Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and received her degree in fine arts. She was the youngest in her class, and the only woman.

She married John Aaron White (1917-2003) at the beginning of WWII. After the war, they briefly joined John's family in farming near Sikeston, Missouri, but soon were raising laying hens on Carroll Acres, in middle Tennessee. By the time they had five children, they were determined to escape the stultifying racism of the South and moved to Washington State. After a few years John joined the Soil Conservation Service, bringing the White family to Wells, Nevada, to Reno, to Wadsworth & Fernley, and to Reno again. Helen returned to school at the University of Nevada, Reno to get her teaching certificate after which she taught kindergarten and first grade at Natchez School in Nixon. She happily stowed away all the "Dick and Jane" books and instead had the children write their own stories. Most became wonderful readers.

In the early days of her marriage, Helen was the epitome of the "good farm wife" - - gardening, canning and freezing fruit and vegetables, killing chickens and rabbits, baking bread, making wholesome meals and mothering her children in a seemingly effortless way. By the sixties, the civil rights movement, and later the women's movement, were in full swing and Helen was deeply committed to both. She joined others in sit-ins, letter-writing campaigns, and other anti-discrimination activities, and encouraged her children's political activism as well. In recognition of her hard work and commitment, she was invited by Governor Grant Sawyer to join other civil rights activists as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

At fifty and divorced after 25 years of marriage, she moved to San Francisco where she taught and inspired "high risk" elementary students. At 60, she left teaching to open one of the first bed and breakfast inns in San Francisco, the Union Street Inn.

After two fruitful, happy decades in San Francisco, Helen returned to Reno and filled her life with friends and family, her love of reading, especially The New Yorker and The Nation, politics, gardening, and walking her dogs with her friend Evelyn Dees. She always had the coffee pot on and there was always room for another person at the dinner table.

Helen is survived by her brother, John T. Stewart, her five children - -John, Mary, Holly, Stewart (Patricia) and Geoffrey (Sally), all of Reno. She also leaves behind her children's families, including fifteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren as well as several nieces. Her family remembers her for her courage, her powerful sense of right and wrong, her unwillingness to be thwarted by social expectations, and her desire to make the world a more beautiful, just, and peaceful place.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Reno NAACP or the Unitarian Fellowship of Reno. A memorial service will be held at the Unitarian Fellowship in Reno, 780 Del Monte Lane, at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 9.


Published in Reno Gazette-Journal from Mar. 6 to Mar. 7, 2013