She was only six when America entered World War I. She became a young teenager in the Roaring Twenties. She survived the Great Depression. She came of age during World War II. And in 1934 she was crowned Miss Alexandria.
In that latter experience she competed "against 52 other beauties" in a contest sponsored by American Legion Post No.24 and was selected "Prettiest in Alexandria." Her winner's cup was presented by Mayor Edmund Ticer.
On March 24, Helen Hanback Edmonds died at age 95 in Raleigh, N.C., where she had moved "to be near her children" during the closing years of her life. That life was a microcosm of 20th Century America — its good times and bad times, but most of all, its enduring survival instincts.
The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Murray J. Hanback of 308 Del Ray Avenue, she was "among the first of the government war workers to be transferred to Hawaii" after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan. As part of a contingent "to strengthen the insular defenses and repair the damage at Pearl Harbor," she was employed by the U.S. Department of Justice.
It was also Helen Hanback that reassured Alexandrians that the Japanese attack had not obliterated the romanticism of the fabled Hawaiian Islands. On July 4, 1942, during the darkest days of World War II for this nation, there was a front page article in the Gazette which asked the question "Is Hawaii still the paradise of the Pacific?"
Helen's answer from Honolulu, where she was serving as a secretary to the cable and radio censor, was reassuring to Alexandrians. "There is still moonlight and music to follow working hours," she wrote.
That sentence could serve as a summation of how she viewed her journey through America's formative century. Born October 11, 1911, in Fauquier County, she moved with her family first to Occoquan and then to the Del Ray section of Alexandria.
In Occoquan she and her two brothers, Leon and Eddie, attended a one-room schoolhouse and ice skated on the Occoquan River. But, she grew up in Alexandria where she and her older brother, Eddie, attended George Mason High School.
From there she went on to Strayer Business College in Washington, D.C., where she graduated in the Class of 1930. She then entered upon "a long and varied career" with the federal government.
Between 1932 and 1935, Helen was personal secretary to Admiral R.E. Coontz, Commander in Chief, Veterans of Foreign Wars. Following Coontz retirement she joined the National Recovery Administration, one of President Roosevelt's alphabet agencies formed to address the problems and poverty of the Great Depression. It was headed by General Hugh S. Johnson.
When his term ended at NRA, Johnson wrote a personal letter to Helen thanking her for her "long days of toil, that extended too often far into the night." For that devotion to duty Helen was reclassified to a Grade 7, which at that time carried the large annual salary of $2,000 gross. It took effect January 1, 1935.
She then went to the Department of Justice, Office of Attorney General. During her tenure there America officially entered World War II and she began her tour in Honolulu. Her brother Eddie was also stationed there with the U.S. Navy.
Helen's first assignment was with the Office of the Alien Property Custodian. She then became personal secretary to Commander Milton H. Anderson, head of the Cable and Radio Censor Office.
It was also in Hawaii that she met her husband Lt. George Carlton Edmonds. They were married June 19,1944 at the Church of the Crossroads in Hawaii with Brigadier General Robert W. Douglas, Jr., Commanding General, Seventh Air Force, serving as best man.
Following the War she returned to Alexandria, to resume married life and raise a family. Unfortunately, the marriage ended after 10 years leaving her to raise her daughter Amanda and son Douglas as a single mother.
She accomplished that task "all the while continuing to have various government assignments" and working part time in real estate. Helen also volunteered in local political campaigns and joined heartily in the Alexandria tradition of civic activism.
Her last government post was in the Plans and Program Division at The Pentagon in the late 1960's. "Helen never moved from her home at 15 Mason Avenue until 1980," according to her daughter Amanda, now Mrs. Clyde Douglas of Raleigh, N.C.
"The family decision was made that she should be closer to her family in Raleigh," Amanda Douglas said. Helen resided at Springmoor Life Care Retirement Community for the past 26 years where she enjoyed good health and remained active.
Always loving to dance, her years in Hawaii made her an avid fan of the Hula which was captured in photos and sent home to the family. While in the Retirement Community she continued to perform the Hula to entertain other residents.
In addition to her parents, she was preceded in death by her brothers, Leon and Edwin. She is survived by her daughter Amanda E. Douglas and son Douglass Terry Edmonds, their spouses and six grandchildren.
As for that sojourn into the world of beauty pageants, her daughter Amanda gave the following account. "When I asked mother how she had fared in the state competition in Lynchburg, the most exasperated look came over her face. Several days before the state competition she broke out in the worst and only rash she ever had and ended up having to withdraw."
But, in that typical roll-with-the-punches attitude of her "Greatest Generation" Helen explained that "the fashionable little hats with the netting came to her rescue until her untimely condition improved." That pageant was only the beginning and she was only 23.