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Bob Lind, Published March 23 2014

Neighbors: Famous people keep crossing local woman’s path

Helen Nemzek couldn’t really see why Neighbors wanted to do a column about her, feeling her life wasn’t all that interesting.

This from a woman who knew a man who became a presidential adviser, once advised a college official to devour a piece of his clothing, and who, with her husband, went on double dates with a guy named Johnny Carson.

Helen lives in a red house in Moorhead. Well, sure, it has to be red, she says; she’s a graduate of the University of Nebraska, home of the Big Red athletic teams.

One Nebraska student she came to know, even though he was two years behind her, was a fellow who was excellent at extemporaneous speaking: Ted Sorensen, who later became President John F. Kennedy’s adviser and speechwriter and is credited with helping Kennedy write his famous inaugural speech in which he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Helen is probably one of the few persons around who knows that Ted Sorensen ate ice cream for breakfast.

Debate champ

Helen grew up on a farm near Stella, Neb., where, in high school, she was active in declamation, which led to her getting a scholarship to the university.

She became involved in the theater there, which she loved. But in her senior year, the debate coach told her she wouldn’t be allowed to participate in any more plays unless she went into debate. “He blackmailed me into it,” she says.

She did well in debate. In fact, she won first place in a contest, making her the guest of honor at a banquet and winning her $200, “which was big money at that time,” she says.

But what frosts her was that the college newspaper buried the story about her win on an inside page while covering the front page with a story about a Nebraska football game – “and they had lost!” she moans.

On a brighter note, Helen and another girl competed in a debate tournament that included an excellent debate duo from the University of Oklahoma. That team was so good the head of Nebraska’s speech department said he’d eat his hat if Helen and her partner beat it.

Well, they did. So Helen and her partner wired him to get busy and eat that hat.

Double-dating

Helen graduated in 1947 and landed a job at a radio station not yet on the air: KOLN in Lincoln. But once it got going, she eventually was featured on three of its programs.

Another KOLN staff member was Don French, who Helen met and married. Don was the brother of Jack French, who years ago was a popular radio personality in Grand Forks.

Don and Helen together had a KOLN program called, understandably, “French Toast.”

It was while Don was the station’s chief announcer that Johnny Carson, fresh out of the University of Nebraska, took his first radio job there and Don became his supervisor.

Helen and Don went on several double-dates with Johnny and his girlfriend, Jody Wolcott, who became the first of Johnny’s four wives and the mother of the only three children he ever had.

Helen says that, “With Johnny, what you saw was what you got.” He always had a great sense of humor, she says, and he also was a good ventriloquist and magician. “He was fun,” she says.

But Carson, who eventually became a star on the TV “Tonight” show and made a ton of money, once went with her for coffee, got on a penny scale, found the scale didn’t work, and demanded his penny back.

A few years later, when she was living in Fargo, Helen tuned in the Red Skelton radio show and heard that, because Red wasn’t on that day, Johnny Carson, who then was virtually unknown, would be subbing for him.

“I almost fell off my chair,” Helen says, “so I wrote him, and I got a note back from him, saying, ‘What in the —— are you doing in Fargo, North Dakota?’ He’d been through Fargo on the train when he was in the service.”

The MSUM connection

Don and Helen moved on to radio stations in Omaha, Neb., and Fort Dodge, Iowa, with Helen doing a variety of things, including writing ad copy and program schedules and being on the air in a variety of shows.

In Omaha, she had her first child, Laura French, who now is a freelance writer and communications consultant in Minneapolis.

Finally, Don and Helen moved to Fargo, where they were divorced.

Helen took a job with Kurke Associates, an architectural firm, worked there four years, and met and married Jim Nemzek, who was in real estate.

Jim was the nephew of Alex “Sliv” Nemzek, the longtime coach and athletic director at what now is called Minnesota State University Moorhead, where the fieldhouse is named for him. “’Sliv’ was short for ‘Sliver,’ because Alex was so slim,” Helen says.

Jim and Helen had two children: Jean (now Dr. Jean Nemzek/Hamlin, a veterinarian in Canton, Mich.) and Robert “Bob” Nemzek, who is a scientist at the national laboratories in Los Alamos, N.M.

In 1973, Helen and Jim moved to Moorhead, where she became the Clay County Health Department’s director of administration services for 14 years. She retired in 1988. Jim died in 2000.

Today, at 87, Helen says, “I keep busy; I’m active at my church (St. Francis de Sales, Moorhead) and I play cards.”

But occasionally she’ll take time to sip coffee in her red house and reminisce. And she has lots to reminisce about.

For instance, when she was a freshman at Nebraska, a company of an Army specialized training program elected her its sweetheart.

When in Fort Dodge, Helen was the announcer for a department store’s style show.

In the 1980s she led smoking cessation classes for the American Heart Health Association.

And well-known people – or at least connected to the well-known – kept crossing her path.

Never losing her love for the theater, she was in plays almost everywhere she went. So it was that while in Lincoln, she was in a play in which one of the other actors was David Doyle, who later played a detective on TV’s “Charlie’s Angels” in the 1970s and 1980s.

Locally, she was in a Fargo-Moorhead Community Theater production with Patricia Hansen, Fargo, who is the mother-in-law of actor Jeff Bridges.

In Lincoln, while serving as a receptionist at KOLN, “A tall, good-looking guy came in looking for someone,” she says. “I asked him, ‘Who should I say is calling?’ and he said ‘Stan Kenton’ (the band leader). He said he enjoyed watching me type.”

Then there was the man who came into the station and asked her, “Where’s the can?” It was trumpet player/singer Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong.

Finally, she says a family genealogy study disclosed she is a distant cousin of actress Gloria Stuart, who had a key role in the movie “Titanic.”

And this woman who doesn’t think she has anything of interest to tell says the genealogy research also found that she is a ninth cousin of bank robber Jesse James.


If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors,

The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email blind@forumcomm.com