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More about Helen Hinchliff

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Era

Following seven years in New York City (1967 to 1974) as an assistant professor of communications at Hunter College, City University of New York, I worked in Washington D.C. at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Established in 1957, the Commission was created to be an independent, bipartisan research agency charged with investigating and reporting on the state of civil rights in the United States.

While there, under the name of Helen H. Franzwa and later as Helen Franzwa-Loukas, I oversaw the production of seven research reports on issues ranging from the portrayal and employment of women and minorities in television, voting rights, employment opportunities, and gender inequity in the funding of competitive athletics.

In 1983, the Reagan Administration made plans to close down the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, claiming that discrimination in the United States based on race, national origin, gender, age, and physical disability had ended, so the Commission’s research reports were no longer needed. All of the Commission’s top appointed officials either resigned or were dismissed. I remained as the highest level civil service program employee at the Commission and was assigned the task of overseeing the production of the Commission’s “final report.” In the end, Congress would not support the President in his efforts to close down the Commission, but my life took a different turn anyway. At the end of March 1985, I resigned, changed back to my birth name, and immigrated to Canada to marry Donald Simmons and start at new life on Salt Spring Island.

In 1983, the Reagan Administration made plans to close down the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, claiming that discrimination in the United States based on race, national origin, gender, age, and physical disability had ended, so the Commission’s research reports were no longer needed. All of the Commission’s top appointed officials either resigned or were dismissed. I remained as the highest level civil service program employee at the Commission and was assigned the task of overseeing the production of the Commission’s “final report.” In the end, Congress would not support the President in his efforts to close down the Commission, but my life took a different turn anyway. At the end of March 1985, I resigned, changed back to my birth name, and immigrated to Canada to marry Donald Simmons and start at new life on Salt Spring Island.

The Donald Simmons Era

Donald and I spent our first year in Victoria, coming over to Salt Spring Island every weekend to oversee and help with the completion of our dream home in the village of Fulford Harbour. Once settled at the top of Orchard Road, we developed our property into six distinct gardens (rose, perennial, rhododendron, two water gardens, and a vegetable garden), all of which it became my job to tend. We also renovated four derelict, long term rental cabins that were on a separate, neighbouring property.

By 1997, Donald had no more space to develop new gardens and was also finding it difficult to climb to the top of the hill. Reluctantly, we decided to move into a townhouse in Ganges with a postage stamp space for a garden.

Selling our house in Fulford Harbour was extremely difficult. In January somebody offered about $60,000 below our asking price. In a huff, we turned it down! It was a decision we would later regret because we had dozens of looky-loos who uniformly replied our property was beautiful, but they didn’t want the work it entailed. We hadn’t realized at first that we were in a down market, so we agonized as we found ourselves having to drop our asking price. Meanwhile, we had to keep the house and gardens looking spiffy, so when they were being shown we would treat ourselves to pie and coffee or nachos, or maybe both. During that time, we both put on about thirty pounds. In September, we accepted the only offer we were likely to get, $40,000 less than the one we had initially rejected and $100,000 less our original asking price. No wonder we were stressed.

A year later, on July 15, 1999, Donald suffered a massive stroke. After recovery, he lived for six months at the Lady Minto Hospital Extended Care Unit. He couldn’t come home to our townhouse with its many stairs, so I bought a new house, taking possession in early January and getting it modified for wheelchair use. He came home on April 1, 2000, and survived until November 29, 2000.

In my spare time from gardening, I honed the hobby of researching my ancestors into a new profession. Genealogy and family history soon took over as my prime interest and preoccupation. After winning the [U.S.] National Genealogical Society’s family history writing contest in 1988, I developed a proficiency in genealogical research and writing, doing field research, not only in the United States but also in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. Over the past thirty-some years, I’ve led tours, given lectures and workshops, and have published numerous articles in American and British genealogical journals.

From 1998 until 2018, I was certified as a genealogist by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, and now enjoy certified (retired) status. In the late 1990s, I was president of the International Society for British Genealogy and Family History. Currently, I am a member of the editorial board of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and a judge for the National Genealogical Society’s family history writing contest. In 2001, I was elected a fellow of the American Society of Genealogists. Currently, I am writing articles for the Maryland Genealogical Society Journal featuring Baltimore women in my background who as early as 1786 ventured into a variety of businesses to support themselves and their families. My articles will eventually be posted to this website.

Beginning in 1987, Donald joined me in developing an interest in his English and German ancestors and frequently traveled with me on genealogical research trips.

Donald and Helen - 1987

The Murray Anderson Era

I met Murray Anderson at the Lady Minto Extended Care Unit. Murray was a retired musician, who played the piano for the residents. I’d taken singing lessons the year before and asked Murray if I could sing along. “Sure,” he said. “Here’s a song book. Pick any you like. I know them all.” Donald and I agreed on several I felt confident with and it wasn’t long before I became Murray’s singer and M.C. Singing for the residents at Lady Minto was one of the few activities that kept me going through all the challenges of Donald’s stroke.

Eight months after Donald died, I realized I’d fallen in love with Murray. Murray and I spent most of our time with music, either learning new songs together or performing them at Lady Minto, Greenwoods, Braehaven, and Heritage Place. We also drove twice yearly to Salt Lake City so I could do genealogical research and then we’d drive on to southern California to visit my mother and the rest of my family. We visited most of the national parks along the way and also went to London, Paris, Ireland, and Alaska.

Sadly, Murray began showing symptoms of dementia in 2003. By 2005 I was doing all the driving. I had hoped to care for him at home until the end, but that wasn’t possible. He moved into Lady Minto in March 2010 and died there surrounded by music and his family on September 6, 2012.

Since Murray died, I have been a volunteer in a wide variety of Salt Spring Island organizations serving on the boards of the Greenwoods Eldercare Society, the Canadian Federation of University Women, and Salt Spring Island United Church. I have been writing my column, “Aging with Grace,” for the Gulf Islands Driftwood since 2014. Twice widowed, I now share my home with my cat Sophie.