Matt Lecar & Family
504 Hugo St.
San Francisco, CA 94122
I want to relay a couple of stories about your mother of which you may or may not be aware. It was a precious honor to know Helene for more than 30 years, and to be one of her many friends.
If you or anyone happen to walk past Berkeley City College, remember Helene and how her dedication influence, and persistence helped to make its existence possible. Formerly Vista Community College, it was, for many years, on the precipice of non-existence. Students, faculty, staff and facilities were underfunded as were their classes, facilities, and services.
One day in the early 1990s, after reading a newspaper article about a possible closing of the school, Helene walked into Vista’s 2020 Milvia St. building. No appointments. No formalities. Just walked in and started talking with people.
Over time, she patiently and persistently met with students, presidents, counselors, deans, faculty, staff, district board members, administrators and civic officials, to get to the bottom of what was going on. She brought together several colleagues from Berkeley’s League of Women Voters who wanted to find out why Berkeley’s community college, located in one of the most highly regarded education centers in the world, was so consistently underfunded. They attended board meetings (Helene was at every one of them, taking copious notes), pored over budgets and budget histories, and examined consequences of what turned out to be an out-of-balance funding structure. They found many disturbing facts.
The inequitable funding formula discovery ultimately would lead to a significant and positive change, not only for Vista but for California’s small, often underfunded community colleges. Helene’s persistence pushed the state’s League of Women Voters to launch a community college funding study. When it was presented to the state legislature and the California community college chancellor’s office, legislation was passed to create a fair funding formula for small community colleges, particularly those which, like Vista, were part of multi-campus districts. This meant that students who attended the smaller institutions and the dedicated faculty and staff who served them, would have equitable financial standing with their larger counterparts. They now could develop much-needed programs, services and classes.
This is the kind of occurrence that few pay attention to but has far reaching, generation-to-generation implications. Helene’s awareness of injustice and her actions to reverse it, made a difference that will help current and future generations transform their lives through education. Many who will never know Helene will benefit from her efforts. Over the years, as the college evolved from Vista to Berkeley City, Helene frequently visited to catch up on the latest developments and to help where she could.
She continued her commitment to social justice and to education for all generations, but paid particular attention to youth and to immigrants and their families. She encouraged students to stay in school, pursue their interests, and take the next step to college; and she helped new arrivals to the U.S. and their families to learn English as a Second Language.
Helene was a great friend and mentor. We would get together for lunch or dinner and talk about family, friends, work, education and politics at all levels. Once, after George W. Bush won the presidency, she explained how Harold devised a way to predict who would win. We laughed (and cried) over that one.
One of our last lunches in Berkeley led to Helene’s showing off a north Berkeley front yard with amazing sculptures. “You have to see this,” she said. “It’s been there a long time but it changes every year.” Imagine working in Berkeley for over 35 years and never knowing about that art or of that unique artist’s existence. Helene took the time to slow down, observe, pay attention and share her discoveries of amazing things, sometimes in the most unlikely places and situations.
When she moved to Kokoro, near San Francisco’s Japan Town, she began to learn Japanese and made herself acquainted with the neighborhood’s stores and restaurants, and no doubt the people who ran them. She also knew where they made the best frozen yogurt in the city.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she fiercely loved and was proud of her family. She often related stories about you, your brother and your families, particularly the grandchildren and their latest adventures. She loved learning from them and from others and we all loved learning from Helene!
My heartfelt condolences to you and your families in this difficult time. But also remember the joy, love and hope that Helene brought to many lives and to the world in which she lived. They will continue.
Take care and be well.
–Shirley Fogarino, September 23, 2021