Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

March 6, 2014

Farewell to a 'warrior for justice'

Eccles devoted life to equality, education

Casey Coburn
Special to The Townsman

---- — Editor’s Note: Lifelong local activist Helen Eccles was an education reporter years ago for the Andover Townsman. This tribute was written by former Eagle-Tribune reporter Casey Coburn.

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If she had ever run for public office, Helen “Skip” Eccles would probably have won in a landslide, voted in by the myriad of friends she made from all walks of life.

Instead, she preferred to throw her 5-foot-2-inch dynamo self into working for candidates and causes she believed would make a difference in the world.

Former state Sen. Sue Tucker of Andover said that wherever there was a just cause — equal opportunity, women’s rights, the environment — Helen was there.

“She was one of the warriors for justice,” Tucker said.

Helen died last week at her home in Andover with her family by her side. She was 86.

Helen’s passion for justice was reinforced by the equally fierce sense of social concern of her late husband, Frank, a former Andover School Committee member who was a faculty member and administrator at Phillips Academy in Andover.

The couple, who shared the nickname “Skip,” worked together on the Andover-Dartmouth Urban Teachers Summer Institute, which they created for inner-city school teachers across the U.S.

Former Phillips faculty member David Penner, who served as the institute’s director during its last two years, said that Helen could talk to and work with anybody. When the institute first opened and teachers from the deep South arrived, dubious about the program, Penner said Helen made them feel welcome and at home — and helped them overcome any culture shock they experienced visiting Yankee territory for the first time.

But Helen’s energy extended beyond the boundaries of Phillips into the health, educational and daily living challenges of the Hispanic community in Lawrence. Through Christ Episcopal Church in Andover, she became active in the Merrimack Valley Project, an interfaith group committed to social justice, serving as its chairman and remaining active in it into her 70s and 80s.

“Skip could not abide injustice,” Merrimack Valley Project vice president Rosemarie Buxton said. “She was rather quiet, but very direct and outspoken about what she felt was important.”

Labor issues were one of Helen’s priorities. She joined protestors outside Gillette’s Boston headquarters and attended stockholder meetings to object to the company’s treatment of temporary workers. Lawrence residents were among those bused to Gillette’s Fort Devens facility and required to pay their own fare — even if it turned out there was no work for them that day. Helen was instrumental in leading Tucker to push for passage of a law making the practice illegal.

Helen’s interest in the Merrimack Valley Project grew out of her earlier work teaching English as a Second Language in Lawrence, serving on Bread and Roses’ board and in its soup kitchen, mentoring Lawrence High School students and being involved with the Greater Lawrence Health Center.

After surviving a serious car accident as a young woman that left her in a coma for three months, Helen, who was raised by her widowed mother, became the only student at the time accepted on scholarship to Bryn Mawr, a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.

She went on to pursue a rewarding professional career. A skilled and graceful writer (and consummate grammarian who did not hesitate to correct others), Helen was a contributor and editor for the Dartmouth News Office, education editor of the Andover Townsman and director of public information for Phillips. She served as associate editor, then editor, of the academy’s Alumni Magazine, which won several awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

As a “faculty wife,” Helen was also a dorm mother who took the position seriously. Anna Schneider, a former student, still counts Helen among her friends.

“She shared her life experience and was an excellent listener and coach,” Schneider said. “She was not too prescriptive, always giving the impression that it was not about being right or finding the only answer. It was about learning to choose and trying to figure out the best route or decision.”