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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published December 18 2010

Grand Forks Herald’s ‘Helper’ loved aiding readers

GRAND FORKS – She was called Babe by members of her family and Dottie by many colleagues at the Herald, but when she signed notes or birthday cards at the office, she signed them “The Helper.”

It’s who she was, even before she started writing the column that carried the name and long after she stopped.

Dorothy Nelson, who as Dorothy Abrahamson capped a long and remarkably varied working life by helping thousands of Grand Forks Herald readers as “The Helper” from 1978 to 1988, died Thursday at Edgewood Vista in East Grand Forks after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 90.

The Helper was a consumer advocate, catching a trend of the time in American journalism, and she regularly went to bat for people who felt they had been defrauded, misled or mistreated by companies, bosses, public officials or mail-order operations.

She weathered a few confrontations with angry business people, but she usually was able to negotiate compromises between buyers and sellers, renters and landlords, and friends or neighbors or husbands and wives who needed her to settle a bet or an argument.

And she was always ready to challenge a complaint she thought without merit – like the man who wanted to return a pair of western boots he said were “defective.” A lifelong horsewoman and rodeo competitor, she checked out the boots and demurred, saying she could distinguish “defective” boots from a pair that simply had been worn and worked in muddy corrals.

She helped people write to Dolly Parton and Mikhail Gorbachev, find a timing plate for a 15-year-old outboard motor, get in touch with a high school crush (the seeker was 72) and track down a favorite pumpkin pie recipe.

“Writing that column gave her a great sense of accomplishment,” said Jan Monda, one of three daughters. “That was her whole world – helping to solve problems.”

“It was her love of people” that kept her up and motivated, daughter Nan Mathiason said. “All her life, she couldn’t be alone. She had to be around people.”

On a horse at 2

Born in Brookings, S.D., Dorothy Packenham graduated from high school in Wheaton, Minn., and in 1939 earned a hairdresser’s license in Fargo.

During World War II, she spent two years as a civilian attached to the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Grand Forks and Chicago, where she studied Morse code and learned to make walkie-talkies. She married Arleigh Abrahamson, a railroad worker, in 1943 and came with him to North Dakota, where she worked at a variety of jobs that prepped her for her role as The Helper: secretary to the mayor of Valley City, N.D.; medical secretary to four doctors in Williston, N.D.; beautician, motel manager and writer for the Valley City Times-Record newspaper.

She rode her first horse when she was 2 and at age 10 made local headlines by riding a Black Hills bronco that had thrown 11 men. In a 1967 cattle cutting competition, she was 47 and the only woman among a dozen men. She took second place.

She was secretary of the North Dakota State Rodeo, edited a regional rodeo newsletter and served six years on the board of the Red River Valley Horse Breeders Association.

‘I’d rather dance’

Abrahamson started at the Herald in 1968, covering East Grand Forks and taking other assignments as needed.

In 1974, she came to the office on a day she wasn’t scheduled to work, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and, to put it gently, not looking her best. But an editor told her that Lawrence Welk was at UND, and he asked her to run out to get an interview and a picture.

Dorothy, scruffy and embarrassed but eager to meet someone she greatly admired, was about to photograph Welk when he suggested she join him in the picture.

Ever bold, she asked for a dance instead.

“I’d rather dance than eat,” she told him.

The music played, Dorothy danced with Lawrence Welk, and someone else took a photo, a personal treasure she cherished – her scruffy sweatshirt and imperfect hair notwithstanding.

“I’m fortunate to be healthy,” she said at her retirement 22 years ago. “The good Lord willing, I’m going to have a good time for a long time.”

In addition to husband Cam Nelson, Grand Forks, and daughters Jan Monda, Fargo, and Nan Mathiason, Oxbow, N.D., she is survived by daughter Tam Wright, Salem, Ore.

The funeral will be at 2:30 p.m. Monday at Stennes Funeral Home, 2029 Central Ave. N.W. in East Grand Forks, with a reception following at Valley Golf Course.

Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald