Helen Elizabeth Shurtleff Collins

Helen Elizabeth Shurtleff Collins

1926 – 2019

Essay by Susan Collins

Excerpt from Remembering Adamsville

Formal portrait of Helen in uniform, circa 1946. Courtesy of Susan Collins.

Essay by Susan Collins

Helen was born on February 28, 1926 in Bella Vista, Calao, Peru, while her parents were missionaries/teachers working for the Methodist “education project.” She is the only daughter of Malcolm Chesney Shurtleff (1895-1959) and Florence Luella Jewell Shurtleff (1895-1977).  Helen had two older brothers – Malcolm Chesney Jr. and John Richard; and one younger brother – Donald Eugene. Although the family spent nearly four years in Peru, Helen was too small to remember life there.  But she often told the story of her near-tumble from the gangplank on their return to the US; she had to be caught by her dress hem before she landed in the harbor. 

The Shurtleff family moved several times as their father, Malcolm Sr., worked several jobs in education, teaching or as headmaster; and later with the U.S. Border Patrol.  However, most of the children’s growing up was here in Little Compton; in a dormered Cape Cod house on Long Highway, near Wm. Sisson Road, just south of the original RI red hens’ birthplace.  Helen and her brothers attended Wilbur School, and their father was active in the School Committee.  During those years, their home had an outhouse and a barn out back; and Helen would tell of the old Model T that was buried in the back yard to form the structure for the cesspool her father dug! The family kept several goats as pets. Helen remembered that occasionally a goat was brought into the kitchen to keep warm by the wood cookstove; and she told that during the 1938 hurricane, the barn came down and one of the goats was killed.

When Helen was completing her junior year at JF Wilbur School, the family moved to far northwestern Maine, as her father took a job with the Border Patrol.  She did not graduate from Wilbur School, like her older brothers; but was a graduate of Jackman High School, in Jackman Station, Maine, close to the Canadian border.  She often complained of the cold snowy winters there.

Helen always knew she wanted to be a nurse – from the time, as a young girl, she was treated kindly by a nurse when she was injured by a car when crossing the road in front of Wilbur School.  She appreciated the nurse’s care and concern, and knew then that it was what she wanted to do.

In 1944, she entered Truesdale Hospital School of Nursing, through the U.S. Army Cadet Nurse Corps. This program provided tuition, lodging, and uniforms for the students, as there was a great shortage of registered nurses in hospitals during WW II.  The Cadet Nurse program ended when the War ended; but Helen continued her training and graduated proudly in early 1947.  She had many fond memories and stories of her life in training; and the friendships made there were long-lasting.  Each summer, her class of nursing friends would take turns gathering at each other’s house for lunch and laughs, bringing along their husbands and/or children.  These reunions were still happening as the remaining graduates reached into their nineties!

In November 1948, Helen married Malcolm Sanford Collins (1919-2002).  She met him through his sister Mildred, who was one of her nurse friends/coworkers at Truesdale Hospital.  Malcolm was the son of William R. Collins and Verna (Sanford) Collins of Westport, MA.  Malcolm was a carpenter, working for many years with Simmons & Field, Lepes Construction, Bill Frederickson, among others; who built many homes in the Little Compton, Tiverton and Westport area.  Later, about 1960, he joined the Postal Service as a rural carrier, delivering mail to the southern half of Little Compton.

Helen and Malcolm had one child, Malcolm Sanford Collins, Jr., born in 1949.  The family of three first lived at the home of Helen’s mother’s family, the Jewell homestead on Maple Avenue located at John Shurtleff Corner.  They remained there until 1956 when Malcolm built their new ranch-style home on the land they purchased on Long Highway.

Helen worked as a nurse her entire life, in many different capacities; and was known by many in this area whose lives she touched.  Her career began at Truesdale Hospital, then in several nursing homes, and a number of private duty and night-nurse jobs.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s she became the Little Compton Public Health Nurse, taking over for Mrs. Barry when she retired.  In this capacity, she had an office at the Brownell House, and a car provided by the town.  Her son remembers that the first car she used was an old Chevrolet that had been driven by Mrs. Barry.  One day, while rounding the bend on East Main Rd near Joe Couto’s pond, the car’s rear axle broke, and the wheel and axle began extending out from the side of the car…….she was given a new Toyota wagon shortly after that!  Her duties as Public Health nurse were quite varied – in the office and on home visits she cared for wounds, administered shots, checked in on ailing and elderly residents, and made visits to expecting and new mothers to give help and advice. She enjoyed working with Dr. Rupert vonTrapp, conducting clinics and following up with patients.

When Westport Family Medicine Center opened for business, Helen became Dr. Frank Lepreau’s office nurse.  In those days of the 1970s and 1980s, before there were many paraprofessionals in the medical office, Helen’s job as registered nurse in the office gave her many duties.  She assisted Dr.Lepreu with exams and minor surgeries, gave shots, drew blood, cleaned wounds, kept the records, brought home the laundry, set up exam rooms, cleaned, and any other tasks needed to aid the Doctor. She was quite proud of her varied abilities, and was always frustrated with how some young “nurses” lacked enough experience.  In her mind, the only nurse was a Registered Nurse.

Helen was very involved with the American Legion Auxilliary, helping with their causes and participating in their activities. On Memorial Day, she would be seen marching with the other women, and then back at the Hall, serving to parade participants, the dozens of sandwiches she had helped to make.  In later years, during the Memorial Day ceremonies, she would represent her Gold Star mother, in honor of the loss of her brother John during WW II.

My first “official” memory of Helen was when I began dating her son, my future husband, Malcolm, in the late 1970s.  We had stepped into her kitchen, and there she was, standing near the stove, dressed in her full nurse’s uniform – white dress, white stockings, polished white shoes, white cap.  She was smoking.  And soon, she was telling us a slightly irreverent joke.

This was Helen – straightforward, a sense of humor with a little sarcasm, not afraid to point out the truth or speak her mind.  At work, she was a careful, efficient nurse, always in that crisp white uniform – that was the only way a nurse should dress.  Her cap, earned from Truesdale Hospital Nursing School, was worn proudly and always neatly kept.

Keeping that white uniform clean was important to Helen.  One story she told many times – when visiting her in-laws before work one day, she was admiring their garden, and saw a big fat tomato worm.  She knocked it to the ground and then stomped on it – with horror she saw that it had exploded and squirted up her white stockings and all over the front of her uniform!

After she retired from working full time (partly to help with daycare of her two grandchildren – thank you Helen and Mick!), she continued to work (into her 80s) one day / month, for many years, at the Westport Apothecary, taking blood pressures.  She still wore her white uniform and nurse’s cap.

Susan Collins, Daughter-in-law

April 2020

Excerpt from Remembering Adamsville – Oral History by Helen Shurtleff Collins

Helen’s grandparents, Eugene and Hattie Shurtleff lived at the bottom of Adamsville Hill on the point created by Colebrook Road, Main Street and Stone Church Road. In the 1920s their daughter, Venetta, ran the Adamsville Wayside Library from the north room of their home. The library closed when “Nettie” married and moved away. The house still stands and is now known as “Nancy Oliveira’s House.”

Visiting the Shurtleffs

My father went every single Sunday to shave my grandfather. Once a month he’d cut his hair. Grandpa would say, “Oh, this feels so good.” Grandpa couldn’t do it, Grandma wouldn’t do it, and they didn’t want to spend the money to go to the barber. They didn’t have any barber in Adamsville. We had one at the Commons; where Commons Lunch is used to be a barber shop. Dad used to trim his mustache and he’d say, “Now don’t take too much off.” He never wanted his eyebrows trimmed much. He was born in Weyauwega, Wisconsin and came back. His mother married three times on the way back. 

Grandpa was friendly with everybody. I don’t know what he ever did for a living. He had a horse and he had a carriage and he had a wagon up in the barn. As you go down the hill to the house there is a road, at the end of that there used to be a barn. You can see where the driveway is, and the stone wall goes from there, down around the house. We could go out in the barn. 

I have to tell you about the outhouse. That was priceless. We’d go out there and we’d be prepared to sit. My brothers always wanted to get out there and I’d say “No, it’s my turn,” because my grandmother papered it. She would have magazines brought to her and people would give them to her, those old-fashioned fashion magazines. She’d cut out all these women, and make a flour paste and paste them. Inside the roof, the seats, whatever out there was covered. If one fell off she’d put another one up. And this was the whole thing. We’d get out there and sometimes I’d have to pull it aside to see what the rest of that picture was. 

I couldn’t wait to get out there because she’d make us sit there when you went in the house. The stove was here and there was a little settee here and I think they piled wood underneath of where we used to sit. She always sat here and combed her hair. When she combed her hair she’d pull her hair down and sit there with a comb. When she got through, she’d put it in the air and take one piece of the hair out at a time until she had enough to roll around her finger and she’d put it up into an old kerosene lamp holder. She always put it in that. After she died, they found all these match boxes full of all this hair. I remember once saying, “What do you do with all that?”  Well she said she was saving it to send to Japan for them to make a wig. And I thought ‘You don’t need the wig later, you need it now.’ That’s all I was thinking but I didn’t say it. I think she was going to send it for them to make a wig and maybe sell it and send her the money. That’s all I could think of. That would be one way she could get some money.

She always wore these long skirts, many, many, many of them. You know, pull it up, and down around the knee there was always a pocket, and she knew right where it was. She’d put her hand down, and she’d pull all the slips up until she got it. When she died there was over two hundred dollars in her pocket. 

[My grandmother] never went out of the house. She’d send Grandpa down for the paper or for food. She didn’t want anybody coming in her house. She’d go outside to meet them. She wouldn’t go very far, scared to death of a car. 

The other thing she was crazy about was my mother’s [fruitcake.] Thanksgiving and Christmas, plus their birthdays and their anniversary, my mother would make a fruitcake. They wouldn’t eat it. My father would decorate it. [My grandmother] wanted it to show people. She’d keep it in the pantry until it was brown and started oozing. But she’d bring it out to show everybody.

[My grandfather would] have her make cookies on Saturday knowing that we always went on Sunday. Of course, we had to go to church somewhere. I’ve been to church on many a Sunday five times. He would go in the pantry and come out with this plate of cookies she’d made. She always made the same kind, thumbprint cookies, and always put apple jelly in them. They always had a little curly-q around the edge. They were always the same and Grandpa would say “You want a cookie?”  He was so sweet. He wouldn’t say boo if his mouth was full. Everybody loved him. 


Come March, my brother Johnny and his friend Billy [Phillips] would go herrin’ing. Billy had a pickup truck his mother had bought him. It was a Jeep pickup and they’d fill the whole back up. They’d go up the hill into my grandmother’s place which was hilly and you had to curve like that, and there’d be herring all over the place in the morning from when they brought them home. They’d sit out there all day Saturday in the truck and take all the roe out and put it in my mother’s quart jars and sell it. They made quite a bit. They loved it. 

Where Did the Adamsville Library Books Go?

I’ve often wondered and all I can think of was maybe [Vanetta] gave them to the town library, not Brownell, the other town library that was in Town Hall. They had oodles of them there that were never registered. My father did all that one time. When he wasn’t busy, he went up and catalogued all of them. They were her books and she didn’t charge for them. It was just a plain lending library. When you get through with them, bring them back and you can borrow more, and that’s the way she ran it as far as I know. I don’t know where she got the [books.]  But my grandmother read a lot. Grandpa had glasses and Grandma had glasses, you know the little ones, but they read a lot. 

Based on an oral history interview with Helen Shurtleff Collins.

First published in “Remembering Adamsville” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2013.

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