By Ted Waddell
GRAHAMSVILLE July 2, 2002 Helen Coombe, a little wisp of a 100-year-old silver-haired matriarch, sat quietly while family members, friends and dignitaries congratulated her on reaching a milestone in history.
Coombe, known lovingly throughout the region as Aunt Helen, was born on June 29, 1902, and on the same date 100 years later, the Neversink community turned out in force to celebrate her 100th birthday.
The birthday party was held Saturday morning at Bicentennial Square, opposite the town hall.
Asked what it was like to reach a centennial birthday, Helen Coombe replied, I cant believe it. . . . Its a beautiful area, and we sit out on our front porch and look all over.
She arrived in a sparkling white 1957 Chevrolet ragtop driven by her nephew, Phil Coombe Jr., former head of the NYS penal system.
All five of us kids used that car for our honeymoons, said Coombe, adding the classic has been in the family since it was new. It was restored a few years back as a family project.
The clans vintage 1928 Chrysler Woodie station wagon also made an appearance. It was once used by Russell Coombes father and grandfather to haul stone out of the fields and for other chores around the farm up on South Hill.
Nancy Coombe Smith said of her great aunt, Shes fabulous and has been part of my life since day one. She kept us out of trouble . . . like the things we did that my parents never found out about.
Pressed a bit for details, even though her mother Marilyn was standing within earshot, she revealed a few secrets from her past.
Truth be known, we used to play with the cows over at a neighbors barn, play in the stream and do things after church, she said.
Town of Neversink Supervisor Georgianna Lepke read a proclamation from the town board in recognition of Helen Coombes 100th birthday.
Her family roots are well entwined in this community, said Lepke. In her quiet way, she has been a force for good and a stabilizing influence on those around us. . . . We express our esteem and affection.
Former NYS Assemblyman Richard Dick Coombe announced his beloved aunt had received birthday wishes from the governor of the state and the U.S. president.
Like me, you were born in the Hudson Valley, read the proclamation from NYS Governor George Pataki. As a person who grew up on a farm, I can understand why you have never missed a summer at the farm in Grahamsville. . . . I admire the strong work ethic nurtured in the Coombe family.
In a letter to Helen Coombe from the White House, President George W. Bush said, Laura joins me in sending best wishes for your 100th birthday . . . on a remarkable life great in accomplishments and years.
May you be surrounded by the warmth of happy memories and secure in the knowledge that you have made this world a truly better place, added the nations president.
George LaMoree, Helen Coombes grandfather, was the first physician to serve the community of Neversink. Her mother Charlotte was born in the area, and her father William Coombe preached from the pulpit at the Grahamsville Reformed Church for many years.
As one of five children, the family would leave their home in New Jersey to make the 12-hour journey by train to Grahamsville. At the end of the trip, Ray Erath picked up the Coombe clan at the train station in South Fallsburg and took them up to the farm in his horse-drawn wagon.
At first, the family spent their cherished summers boarding with Uncle Horace and Aunt Ellen Divine. In 1910, William Coombe bought the house Helen Coombe has summered in ever since.
Helen Coombe graduated from Kean College in 1923. She taught first grade at the Emerson School in Kearny, NY for 39 1/2 years.
Along the road to reaching her 100th birthday, Helen Coombe has traveled widely around the globe, visiting such far-flung places as Europe, South America, Mexico, Canada, the British Isles and Bermuda, her favorite destination except for the farm on South Hill.
What keeps her coming back to the hills and valleys of Grahamsville? The peace and quiet, the mountains, the church, the people and the opportunity to spend time with this side of the family.
She attributes her longevity to three things: enjoying life, keeping her mind sharp by reading lots of books and doing crossword puzzles, and traveling.
After all the speeches, Helen Coombes sister-in-law Ethel Coombe invited the guests to partake of cupcakes and lemonade.
Helens younger brother, 92-year-old Philip Coombe, recalled being looked after by his older sister as a youngster.
She used to push me around in a baby carriage, he said. That was something!
Moments before Helen Coombe headed off to a surprise birthday party up at the house, Julie Starner held up her 13-month-old daughter Emily so she could give the birthday celebrant a kiss on the cheek. Don Starner, a detective with the Sullivan County Sheriffs Department, and his wife have been friends of the Coombe family for years, said Julie Starner.
Rev. Paul Ruter of the Grahamsville Reformed Church said that, on Sunday, he was going to recite Beulah Land to Helen Coombe in honor of her 100th birthday. Coombe is a member of the local church where her father preached a good many years ago.
Helen is a wonderful lady, the most independent great lady youll ever want to meet, said Marilyn Coombe.