Helen Gum Westlake spent her elementary school years in a one-room country schoolhouse near Elburn, always the lone student of her class and usually left to fend for herself.
By her second retirement -- the first just didn't stick -- the Wheaton woman had helped shape thousands of young minds across the country, not just in the areas of family living and child development, but in life and love.
"Helen was always very dedicated to and energetic about her teaching," her husband, Don, said. "She was a very sunny, positive-thinking person who had an impact on a lot of people."
Westlake, who worked as an educator for more than 50 years, died surrounded by her family Sunday, Sept. 9, after a brief hospitalization. She was 84.
Westlake proved just as passionate about supporting both women's equality and the Democratic Party in a very conservative DuPage County. She served a precinct committeewoman in Milton Township for nearly three decades until stepping down in 2010.
Marian Tomlinson, chair of the Milton Township Democrats, said Westlake and her husband were willing to help in just about any way, from making copies, calls and contributions to mentoring those with less experience. Her corn casserole was always a hit at social events, too.
The group planned to nominate the couple for the upcoming Tinker Harvey Pioneer Award, which annually recognizes service to the DuPage County Democrats.
"Helen walked the talk," Tomlinson said. "She believed Democrats should stand tall and promote the public good."
Westlake got her start teaching home economics in small towns in Illinois and Iowa before settling in as department chair for 17 years at York High School in Elmhurst.
Not caring much for retirement after leaving in 1989, Westlake began another 17-year stretch as an adjunct professor at College of DuPage. She suffered from spinal stenosis, so her husband could often be seen helping her walk across the Glen Ellyn campus to classes.
Westlake's influence wasn't limited to DuPage County. She wrote five acclaimed family living and child development textbooks, two with her husband, that are used to this day in schools across the country. She often received invitations to teach graduate courses over the summer at the University of Nebraska, Meredith College and other schools.
Helen Westlake's work led to a long list of honors including Distinguished Alumni Awards from both Northern Illinois and Iowa State universities. The den in her Wheaton home is filled with plaques and other forms of recognition.
"They meant a lot to her because they made her feel like she accomplished something," Don Westlake said. "And that she certainly did."
Westlake is survived by her daughter, Dawn, a filmmaker and actress in Los Angeles, her son-in-law, sisters and dozens of cousins, nieces and nephews.
A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, at Northern Illinois University's Naperville campus, 1120 E. Diehl Road.