Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In loving memory of my father-in-law February 9, 2021

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 2:38 PM
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Tom and Betty Helbling, photographed in 1988.

HE DIED PEACEFULLY Friday morning, two of his daughters by his side.

He is my father-in-law, Tom. Age 90. His death came quickly after a short hospitalization, discharge, sudden change in health, admittance to hospice, then gone the next day.

Mass of Christian burial for my father-in-law will be celebrated in St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman.

Now we are preparing to say goodbye in the deep of a brutally cold stretch of weather here in Minnesota in the midst of a global pandemic. Both add to the challenges.

Today, though, I want to focus on Tom and my memories of the man I’ve known for nearly 40 years. A man with a large and loving family, whom he loved, even if he didn’t often openly show it.

Tom and Betty Helbling, circa early 1950s.

Tom has always been surrounded by a large family, beginning with his birth into a blended family in rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in December 1930. After farming on the Helbling homestead, Tom and his wife, Betty, moved in 1963 with their young children to a central Minnesota farm. Their family grew to nine children, 18 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.

As a young child, Tom briefly attended Catholic boarding school, which leads to one of my favorite stories about him. Apparently oatmeal was often served for breakfast. And Tom disliked oatmeal. One morning he stuffed the cooked grain in his pocket rather than eat it, so the story goes. I expect it wasn’t long before the nuns discovered the oatmeal mess and meted out punishment.

Yes, Tom could be particular about the foods he ate. He liked, in my opinion, the strangest foods—Braunschweiger, summer sausage, pickled beets, herring… And, yes, his son, my husband Randy, also likes herring. Shortly before his health declined, Tom enjoyed a few of those favorites delivered to his care center room by a daughter.

Ripened corn field. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Visitor restrictions due to COVID-19 were hard on Tom, as they have been for most living in congregate care centers and their families. But my father-in-law has overcome much in his life, most notably the loss of his left hand and forearm following an October 1967 farming accident. The accident happened when Tom hopped off the tractor to hand-feed corn into a plugged corn chopper. The rollers sliced off his fingers and pulled in his hand, trapping it. As Tom screamed for help, Randy, only 11 years old, disengaged the power take-off, then raced across fields and swampland to a neighbor’s farm. It’s a harrowing story that could have easily turned tragic.

My father-in-law’s prosthetic hand. Tom put a band-aid on his hand after he burned a hole in it while frying potatoes in 2009. I laughed so hard. Prior to getting his hand, Tom wore a hook to replace his amputated limb. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Despite a missing limb, Tom managed to continue milking cows and, in later years, to run a small engine repair business. He also grew and sold strawberries and pumpkins. I remember harvesting pumpkins with him one cold October evening, rain slicking the field with mud. We were drenched and miserable by the time we’d plucked those pumpkins.

One of my favorite photos of Tom giving an impromptu concert on his Lowrey organ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

It is the creative side of Tom which I especially appreciated. He was a multi-talented life-long musician who played the piano, organ and accordion (until he lost his hand). He could play music by ear and had a piano tuning business. At age 81, he took refresher organ lessons and in 2012 gave an impromptu concert for Randy and me in the small St. Cloud apartment he shared with his second wife, Janice. His first wife, Betty, died in 1993. He treated us to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Somewhere My Love” from the movie Dr. Zhivago. What a gift to us.

Threshing on the home place in North Dakota, a painting by my father-in-law, Tom Helbling.

Tom also painted, a hobby he took up late in life. Randy and I have two of his original oil paintings and several prints. They are a reminder of my father-in-law, of his history, of his rural upbringing, of his creative side. I consider these a legacy gift. Valued now more than ever at his passing.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


50 Responses to “In loving memory of my father-in-law”

  1. Missy’s Crafty Mess Says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of your families loss. I’ll be thinking of and praying for you! Your father in law sounds like a lovely and talented man. That painting is beautiful!

  2. Ruth Klossner Says:

    Beautifully written…what a legacy Tom left for his family

  3. Bernadette Thomasy Says:

    Sorry for the loss of Randy’s father and your father-in-law. Praying you’ll both find support and comfort from your family and friends.

  4. Ann & Karl Vohs Says:

    Audrey and Randy,
    Our sympathies to you and your family at your fathers passing. Your dad sounded like an amazing man with many talents and a lot of perseverance. To live to 90 in and of itself takes strength and determination. Having a large family , farming, losing a limb, the death of a spouse all those could take a toll on a person. He certainly was an example of those called ” the greatest generation”.
    May his memory sustain you in the days ahead.

  5. A lovely tribute, Audrey. ❤

  6. sheketechad Says:

    What a wonderful example of life. My condolences to you and Randy on his passing. 🤗

  7. Mark Winter Says:

    We are so sorry for your loss. We will keep you and your family in our thoughts and prayers.

    Mark and Diane Winter


    Once again you have nailed it! Thank you for this wonderful tribute regarding Dad.

  9. Joan Brew Says:

    Thank you so much for the comments about uncle Tommy! I remember him playing the piano and always impressed by his paintings! He was a quiet and gentle man!

  10. valeriebollinger Says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this loving tribute to your father-in-law.

  11. Juli McCarlson Says:

    Our sympathies and prayers to you and your family. Father-in-loves are special men in our lives. I saw mine every day, as we lived & worked on the family farm here in SD. Your tribute is beautifully written. Mine passed on July 2020 at 99 years, at his home. In his younger years, he served in the Marine’s, on the island of Iwo Jima. Their stories will remain with us for a long time! Thank you for sharing your heart with us!

  12. What a beautiful tribute to your father in law. Our condolences to you and your entire family.

  13. jhc1218 Says:

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Grandpa. We’re so thankful we were able to see him at Christmastime (through the window).

  14. Kiandra Judge Says:

    A full life lived in love. I am sorry for the loss though and I’m thinking of you and your family.

  15. Rosie Quale Says:

    Thank you Audrey, your words are always comforting.

  16. Kim Kendall Says:

    Our deepest sympathy is extended to your family during this sad time. So many wonderful memories for you to lean on to give you comfort. 🙏

  17. Deanna Bjork Says:

    Audrey, Thank you for sharing such beautiful memories of a remarkable person. He was a perfect example of a person who did not allow the loss of a limb to interfere in his joy and abilities to do whatever his heart desired. Playing the piano and painting, just one of his many talented gifts. God rest his soul. May his memories live on in your hearts forever.

  18. smashedfingers Says:

    Audrey, Thank-you for the wonderful tribute to my father. He was talented in many areas, and not to much would stop him from tackling different projects.
    He worked on all the various farm implements, including overhauling the tractors. He not only tuned pianos but restored several pianos and old pump organs. He even repaired the organ at the church pictured above. I remember walking into his repair shop and he had the clothes dryer apart. Something had burned out and looked like a mess of white wires that looked like a bowl of spaghetti (not color coded). He got it figured out and it worked.
    You are quite fortunate to hear him play that organ. Not many outside of immediate family members did. I always thought he could play accordian very well. But because he wasn’t at the level of Lawrence Welk, or Myron Floren he self determined not to let many hear him play. If someone drove up while he played it was put in the case and stashed away.

    • Thank you, smashedfingers (whose identity is well-known to me; the smashed fingers are a give-away), for appreciating this post and for sharing your memories of Dad. I wish I had known him in his accordion-playing days. I feel honored to have heard him play the organ.

  19. He was truly a gifted and creative man. Appreciate you sharing this great man with your readers today. I am so sorry for your loss – love, hugs and prayers to you and your family. Life is such a precious gift and he seems like he lived it fully. Take Care

  20. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

    This is such a nice tribute to your father-in-law. I’m sorry for your family’s loss and glad you have memories that are worth keeping. By the way, I like herring, too. 🙂

  21. Sending our condolences to you, Randy, and family… Tom sounds like quite the guy. Someone to be proud of.

  22. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    A caring and thoughtful tribute to Randy’s dad. He sounds like a man of many talents. The loss of a parent is never easy….praying for you both.

  23. TheAgWife Says:

    So sorry for your loss. 🙏

  24. Judy Olson Says:

    What a nice tribute to Tom. He was a nice man! We will always be grateful for him. Mom Olson(as I called Janice) was happy and they enjoyed many years together. We visited when we could, called and missed the time we couldn’t. Thank you for being a part of our extended family. Family is a treasure. Rest In Peace Tom. We miss them both.

  25. Susan Ready Says:

    Your tribute was lovley and you showed the many facets of his life and creative pursuits. Thoughts and prayers to your family

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.