Celebrating New London's bright light, Helen LeBeau
New London — Sue Tierney’s voice began teetering, the residual effect of abject sadness, recalling the life of the most selfless women she ever knew.
“I never met anyone who would offer to help as much,” Tierney was saying Tuesday morning, struggling for the right words to hail the life of Helen LeBeau, the gentlest soul of them all in New London.
LeBeau, the city’s everywoman, died last week at 53.
There are no words.
Hard to know where to begin to describe the woman who sustained Anne Frank’s timeless line, “in the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit.”
Tierney, a Board of Education member in the city, is better known for running one of New London’s most iconic businesses, Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock, with brothers Tom and Scott Eshenfelder. The business opened in July, 1996. Helen LeBeau was there that day. She never left.
“She did pretty much everything,” Tierney said. “Counter, cashier, food service, kept everyone in line and everything stocked. ‘We’re going to run out of this,’ and ‘you’re going to need register paper next week’ and ‘order this.’ She knew the little stuff.
“We always joked she was the Paper Room Nazi. She had the cups and everything in their place. If someone went in and moved something, it would be back to the way it was.”
That was Helen: Her strength and spirit always ensured everything always went back to the way it was, even when life was unkind to her. She was a widow who raised four daughters on her own. But she was always there. Yes. This: She was always there.
She was always there for her children.
She was always there for her customers, knowing all their names and idiosyncrasies.
She was always there for her neighbors: babysitter, Uber driver, smiling face.
Heck, she was even always there on The Wall, the famous stone framework that separates the beach from Pequot Avenue.
“She stopped more traffic than the stop sign on Lower Boulevard,” longtime friend Reid Burdick said. “She’d sit there on the wall and all the cars would go by with people yelling, ‘Hey Helen! Hey Helen!’”
She was always there.
“She knew everybody’s name. Every customer,” Tierney said. “Some of our customers have been coming here for 20 years. I’d be waiting on them and I should know their names. I can’t say, ‘can I have your name?’ So I wouldn’t ask. I’d go to Helen. ‘What’s that guy’s name again?’ She’d laugh and yell ‘Bob!’ There’s a group of ladies that come here all the time. Kelly, Ellie and May. I know who Kelly is. Ellie and May? I wasn’t quite sure. But Helen did.”
LeBeau’s tentacles reach outside the city as well. She’s part of a prominent sailing family in Stonington, owners of “The Leprechaun,” well known in local racing for many years.
Mostly, though, Helen LeBeau’s life was about the unspoken passion that comes from constant effort. There’s no one story that defines her, no great anecdote that ties the bow around the life ended too soon. What defined Helen LeBeau was selflessness, decency and constancy. She was the very best of an often misunderstood city.
“I remember the video the segway girls (Wheeling City Tours) did once about New London,” Tierney said. “They’re going all around New London and there’s Helen in the video, sitting on her patio, wearing her Captain Scott’s T-shirt. I wish I could get a copy of that. I realized that I really don’t have a good picture of her.”
Maybe that’s because LeBeau was good at that. The woman who was always there, but never in the spotlight.
“I was on the register (Monday) and all the customers kept saying ‘we’re so sorry for your loss,’” Tierney said. “The thing that sucks is that when something like this happens, you want life to stop. You want everything else to stop with it. But it doesn’t.”
No, it doesn’t. All we really know about life, Robert Frost once said, is three words: It goes on.
Maybe we know this, too: It’s too short.
Helen LeBeau, such a bright light of a spirit, taught us plenty in her short time.
Treat people well.
And always be there.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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