Full House/In Waynesboro - It’s a Family Thing by Nathan Oravec
by Nathan Oravec
On Friday, March 26, Winifred Helman of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania turned 80 years young, or - as she says - “thirty nine, forty one times to the kids.” Her party, held at the town’s historic armory and thrown by her children - Stacey, Vicki, Jeffrey, Lisa, Deanna, Barbara, Brenda, Douglas, Missy, Deborah, Cynthia, Sandra, Sherry Wanda, Patricia and Richard - was supposed to be a surprise, but, honestly, she had a feeling something was up. “They think they can pull things over on me,” says the sprite octogenarian of her brood. “But they can’t.”
Interestingly, earlier in the month, at a wedding celebration for her grandson, Winifred’s fortune from a novelty cookie had tipped her off - “A Loved One is Planning a Surprise for You.”
So the numbers were slightly off - cookies can’t always be perfect - it got the love part right.
Married sixty years, Winifred and her late husband Richard had eighteen children together. Eighteen children - all single births - today ranging in age from 37 to 65 (two, Shelva and James, are deceased) and having produced a grand lineage of 140 blood offspring, spanning three generations - the great and the great, great - of grandchildren, with five more on the way.
It begs the expression - “Wow.”
To start at the very beginning, Winifred and Richard were married on September 3, 1938. She - a Greencastle girl - was fourteen years old; he - of Five Forks - was four years her senior.
Winifred remembers their initial meeting. Richard’s brother Glen had been seeing a girlfriend of hers. She inquired if he had a younger brother. He said that he did - seventeen years old. Winifred, thirteen at the time, suggested he “bring him along some time.”
The first time Richard saw her - from a distance, she recalls - Winifred was on roller skates. The second, she had been joyriding through town with friends. Glen approached their car and mentioned his younger brother was interested in seeing her. “Send him over,” was the reply.
“That was it,” she says with a definitive grin.
For a short time following their wedding, the couple stayed at their families’ homes. Following the birth of their children Dick and Patricia, the couple moved to Waynesboro, three months before Richard went to serve in the Army. Friends, says Winifred, were never far off, and help was always just a call away for the young mother. “All of our neighbors looked out for us while he was gone.”
In 1946, when Richard got out of the service, the family moved to Broad Street where they lived for 36 years before moving to a house on Garfield in 1982, where Winifred continues to live today.
“It’s interesting that we lived on ‘Broad’ Street,” muses daughter Deanna Himes. “Look how many ‘broads’ there are in our family.”
Only four of the eighteen children were boys, and then, they arrived in intervals far apart from one another. “It was seven years between Richard and Jimmy,” says Winifred. “Ten years between Jimmy and Doug. And another seven years between Doug and Jeff.”
At one time, she laughs, en route to the hospital, she was given an ultimatum: “If you don’t come back with a boy, we’re not taking you.”
“Still, people used to say I had the prettiest girls in Waynesboro.”
“My husband went to a country school where there was one teacher for all of the kids,” explains Winifred. “He went to high school for three weeks before leaving and going to work on the farm.”
After the army, Richard would eventually go to work for Fairchild as a mechanic, and ultimately, as lead man. “My father was a very smart person,” says daughter Sandra Helman. “He could fix anything. And he was a perfectionist.”
“When he’d buy something - a car or a piece of machinery - he could tell the clerk at the shop how everything worked - how it went together,” she continues. “Everyone said he was one of the smartest men they’d ever known. And he could take one look at a person and tell if they were any good or not.”
“Quite a few boys my sisters brought home were placed under the barrel,” laughs Deanna. “Placed under the barrel and scraped up off the floor.”
“He always said that after he left Fairchild, it wouldn’t last,” recalls Winifred. “A year after he retired - it closed down.”
Winifred, too, worked while simultaneously raising her ever-growing family. “When we first were married I worked capping strawberries for Hershey’s Creamery,” she says. “I did peaches for a season for Bryers’ Ice Cream.” She sold Christmas and greeting cards for a time and further seasonal orchard work for Musselman’s. In 1972, after waiting until her last child had gone to school, Winifred - then 47-years old - took a full-time job at Regency where she remained for just over twenty years.
“That’s why none of us were ever afraid to work,” says Deanna. “You name it, we did it. Picked cherries, mowed lawns...”
“And we never did without anything,” notes Sandra. “Sure, we had the hand-me-downs, but we also had new things.”
“All of those kids,” Deanna adds. “And no one on welfare. That’s proof it can be done.”
When people ask Winifred how she and Richard managed a family of eighteen, her answer is simple. “We just grew up with them,” she says. “Tried to keep them straight. They were good kids, but they could be bad every once in a while. When they went anywhere - they knew they had better act nice - or else. We let them know they had to behave.”
“We’d entertain each other,” says Deanna of her brothers and sisters. “We’d make up our own games. We’d make our own paper dolls. We always had enough kids for Red Rover, Red Rover. We’d play baseball - and we were both teams!”
The family always traveled in two cars - on family excursions to Luray Caverns and State Parks. The older children would watch after the younger children, and soon - that became preferable to all parties. “Whenever one of us went somewhere - a bunch of us went,” says Sandra.
“Eventually, we never had to take them anywhere,” says Winifred.
Still, it wasn’t until 1978 - forty years after being wed - that Richard and Winifred took a vacation alone. With their youngest entering sixth grade, the couple’s progeny convinced them that it was high time to get out. “The older kids said they’d mind the little ones,” says the matriarch. “Even then, we didn’t feel right about it.”
They went to Williamsburg, Virginia. They visited Busch Gardens and the theme park there. “When he was young, Richard would never get on any rides except the bumper cars,” she recounts. “There, he rode everything.” Including a daunting log ride, but that was by accident. “We got in the wrong line, we thought we were going on the [train ride]. We were soaking wet when we got out,” she smiles.
They would return every year after.
“I don’t think she ever knew how many kids she had,” Deanna jokes. “Everyone - all of our friends - were always over at our house. When we were growing up, she fed the entire neighborhood.”
“If kids heard that my mom made vegetable soup - they would be there.”
“Still today,” says Sandra, “people come up and ask ‘Does your mom still make colored popcorn? Does you mom still make fudge or potato candy?’”
To answer, every Easter Winifred continues to fill forty baskets of candy for “the younger ones” and makes hard-boiled eggs for “the men.” She fills baskets for the FOE and the Ladies Auxiliary with, “enough in each,” says Sandra, “to feed an entire family.”
Everyone gets a Christmas gift every year - often including people she’s never met.
“My mom,” says Deanna, “is like a friend magnet. Anywhere she goes, everyone knows her. And once you meet her - she’s always your friend.”
Winifred says she and Richard never planned to have eighteen children - who would? Never in her wildest dreams did she expect to be having a child when her two eldest were having babies of their own. But life happens, “and so,” says Sandra, “the story goes.”
Other than kids - Winfred says she has an abundance of photographs. “We have loads and loads of pictures. Sometimes I think I could paper the walls with pictures.”
Once, Deanna recounts, someone asked her father if he had a hobby. He proudly pointed to a photo of his family and said, “This is my hobby.”
Perhaps because life and its promise have continuously surrounded her, Winifred - at eighty years - is going strong.
“Everywhere I go,” she says, “everyone calls me mum.”
It’s a term of considerable affection.
And, in Waynesboro at least, that’s probably how it seems.
Winifred & Richard’s Kids:
Missy (Melissa) Woodring
James Helman (deceased)
Shelva Helman (deceased)