September 24, 1922 – November 13, 2020
Born on her grandparents’ farm in Clarksville, MI on September 24, 1922 to Kenneth and Annabell (Friend) Braendle, Helena was the older sister of K. Whitney, Phyllis, Neil, Jim and Jack, all of whom predeceased her. After her mother’s untimely death, Helena, then aged 12, shouldered much of the responsibility of caring for her siblings. This early commitment to caring for others would be the hallmark of her life as she worked for the next 86 years as a nurse, educator, mother, grandmother, and church elder until her death on November 13, 2020.
Despite the early demands on her, Helena was an excellent student, graduating first in her high school class, an achievement she always humbly discounted by explaining that “there were only 12 of us.” At the outbreak of World War II, Helena joined the nursing program at Butterworth Hospital because, as she said, “The war was on and I wanted to get at it.” She loved her training at Butterworth, which was particularly intense due to wartime staff shortages, and it was there while she stopped at the drinking fountain one day, that she caught the eye of Dr. James Riekse who was finishing his medical training courtesy of the United States Army. Jim and Helena were married soon after and proceeded to go wherever the Army sent them, including to Walla Walla, Washington where their first child, James Riekse Jr., was born, and later to Panama.
Upon their return to Grand Rapids after Jim’s discharge, he started a practice in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Helena turned to the business of raising a family. Four daughters arrived—Nancy, Meredith, Judith and Laurel—and with Jim off delivering babies all hours of the day and night, Helena became a de facto single parent. Her maternal grandmother eventually came to live with the growing family to help. This extended family arrangement, which lasted over 20 years, created a mutually beneficial relationship for all, especially for the children who benefitted from more quality time with their mother and also enjoyed the love and the delicious home-baked bread and pies provided by Grandma Friend.
Helena and Jim provided their children with many life-enriching experiences, including theater and museum outings in Chicago and Detroit and month long cross-country trips which took them to most of the northern U.S and Canada. They encouraged their children’s various individual pursuits including swimming, choral singing, and horse riding. Two of their children traveled to Europe and South America as exchange students, and they also welcomed students from Argentina and the former Yugoslavia into their home and made them part of the family.
Caring for a family of five could easily have been a full-time job, but Helena also took on a number of projects that were dear to her heart. She developed and taught programs in reproductive health in the Grand Rapids Public Schools and at her church, programs that were so successful and long-lasting that both her children and her grandchildren found themselves attending them. She presented this important but sensitive material in such a matter-of-fact way that both generations managed this experience with a minimum of embarrassment. Helena was also committed to providing access to mental health services and served as a board member of Pine Rest Christian Health Services, working to expand their joint ventures and satellite clinics in the community.
Helena was an active member of Central Reformed Church for almost sixty years. Convinced that God wanted women to be an important part of his ministry, she worked ceaselessly to increase the ways in which women could participate. She served as an elder, was a delegate to the North Grand Rapids Classis and to the Reformed Church General Synod where she voted to bring children to Holy Communion. As part of that effort, she sat on a committee that developed a book to prepare children for communion. Helena was deeply committed to her ministry to the church’s elders, particularly those who were unable to attend church. She worked well into her 80s visiting and sharing God’s love with “my people.”
Helena was the beloved grandmother to eight grandchildren. She and Jim filled their home with toys and also with books which they shared with their grandchildren, helping their parents instill in them a love of reading and education. Among the grandchildren’s fondest memories are their birthdays and Christmas trips to local bookstores and spending time with Grandma at the little cottage overlooking Lake Michigan (her favorite place) where they would walk on the beach, play games of RummiKub, and she would make them homemade ice cream. She will be remembered for taking their hands, looking them straight in the eye and telling them, “You know I love you.”
Helena and Jim’s marriage was exceptional, full of love and laughter; it was a model of mutual care and respect providing an example of what a marriage could be for the generations that followed. They were partners who challenged each other to evolve and grow. They even allowed themselves to be led by their children, becoming more politically progressive and more tolerant of the differences of others over the years of their marriage. Helena decided to return to college in her 60s and, with the full support of Jim, earned a B.S. from Aquinas College and an M.R.E. Degree from Western Theological Seminary. They never stopped learning. When Jim began losing his eyesight in his 90s, Helena read to him until her voice gave out. She always said that she had married the “best man,” and it was clear he felt the same way about her.
Helena spent the last year of her life being cared for in the nursing wing at Beacon Hill at Eastgate. The love shown to her by the staff at Beacon Hill, in particular one incredible caregiver who adopted Helena and the entire Riekse family as her own, took some of the sting out of what would otherwise have been unbearable isolation for her during the pandemic shutdown. They filled the gaps left by the absence of her family, made Helena happy and ensured that her last months were filled with the care and love that she had shown to so many during her lifetime of service to others.
Helena was preceded in death by her husband, son, parents, siblings, and son-in-law Jack Zepp (Meredith). Helena will be lovingly remembered by her children Nancy (John) Norden, Meredith Riekse, Judith Riekse, Marcus and Laurel (Fred) VanDyke; her eight grandchildren Jim (Julie) Riekse III, Andrew (Shanna TenClay) Norden, Jamie (Sean) McWilliams, Kate (Troy) DeWys, Brad (Heather) Norden, Tom (Kylie) Hoesch, Karl (Tracey) Hoesch, Leah (Matthew) Brooks and three step-grandchildren Steve (Brittany) Flynn, Samantha (Daniel) Burns and Lindsay VanDyke; her twenty great-grandchildren and three step-great-grandchildren; her sisters-in-law MaryEllen Braendle and Lynn Braendle; and by a number of nieces and nephews.
A celebration of Helena’s life will be scheduled when it is safe to gather, hopefully sometime in 2021. Those wishing to make memorial contributions are asked to direct them to Central Reformed Church, 10 College Ave., N.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49503. The family welcomes memories and messages in their guest book online at www.cookcaresgrandville.com.
No public services are scheduled at this time. Receive a notification when services are updated.
November 24, 2020
She was the woman I always called Mom --- my other Mom. I have good memories of working side by side at the cottage, a place she and I painted 7 times. It was her and my favorite place. She was a wonderful cook, a woman who read Gourmet and Bon Apetit' cover to cover and wasn't afraid to try those complex recipes. Holiday meals at her dining room table were legendary and delicious!
Until we meet again, on another shore and another time...Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory, Mom.
November 23, 2020
Mrs. Rieske will be sadly missed by the members of the Kent County Medical Society Alliance.
Colleen (Humphrey) Smelker
November 23, 2020
Helena graduated from the Freeport High School in 1940 along with my mother, Velma (Buehler) Humphrey. My mother thought the world of Helena and would look forward to the annual Freeport Alumni Banquets held each June, so everyone could catch-up each year. My parents would have the class come back to their house after the event. I believe your mother was the last class member from "40" . Thanks Helena for being such a good friend to Velma.
November 22, 2020
As a physician's wife, I new Helena a little; never so much as having read about her, except that she shone as an exceptional woman, and I have admired her all these years. Please accept my sympathies, as she will be sorely missed; and accept my congratulations to whom so beautifully memorialized her in the Press.
November 19, 2020
Grandma, how I miss you.
I am so thankful to have been by your side for the last week of your life holding your hand, laughing with you, crying with you, hugging you, and still watching some sports with you. You were always one of my biggest supporters, and I couldn’t have been more lucky for that. You were such an incredible role model. Life never stopped you from accomplishing any goals you had. You showed us all what it really meant to dream big, and make it a reality. Thank you for welcoming Matt into our family with open arms. Thank you for loving my children with all of your heart. You have made such a huge impact on Jonathan, and you will forever hold a permanent spot in his heart, and all of ours as well. Don’t worry, James will hold onto that adorable red hair that you cherish so much. You will always be talked about, thought about, and most importantly...be loved. We will forever miss you. Until we see each other again. Thank you for being my grand mother. ❤️
Leah -your 8th grand child.