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March 20, 2014
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Inspiring Roseburg volunteer Helen Lesh dies at age 88

This article would have embarrassed Helen Lesh.

According to friends and family, the longtime Roseburg volunteer, who died Tuesday of an apparent heart attack at 88, thought it improper to boast about service.

“She didn’t take any accolades,” said friend Sally Pakulak. “She just did the job to get it done.”

Helen Lesh, the operator of a kitchen for the needy, den mother to generations of young ballplayers and a volunteer organizer in the Roseburg area since the 1950s, is remembered as a committed giver who inspired others.

Lesh was born Helen Ellen Matthews. She and her husband, Ralph, grew up on the same street in the Portland suburbs, but didn’t know it until years later.

They met and married after high school, and the young groom soon entered the Marine Corps. He would go to Oregon State University and earn a food science degree, while she worked as a high school teacher. They relocated to Klamath Falls, where Ralph Lesh took a job as a technician at the Klamath Falls Creamery.

Recruited by Umpqua Dairy, Ralph Lesh brought his wife and their two young children to Roseburg. He developed flavors at the dairy, while she embarked on a career in volunteerism.

“The list (of causes) is incredibly long,” said Doyle Shaver, manager of the Dr. Stewart’s American Legion baseball club. “She was just a community volunteer.”

Shortly after moving to Roseburg, Helen and Ralph Lesh joined up with American Legion baseball. Ralph was first drawn to the sport, but he and his wife were a package deal, according to Shaver. Helen Lesh was soon doing everything from cooking team meals to taking pictures of Docs players for the annual program. She was always at the ballpark, according to her son, Bill Lesh. The team was more to her than a diversion.

“She was interested in it because of the difference it made to the community. To have these kids compete at a high level and succeed ... that was something she wanted to be a part of,” said Bill Lesh, a retired high school principal.

The team brought acclaim to Roseburg when it competed in the American Legion World Series in 1974, 1993 and 1996.

“Those were some good nights, some good summer nights,” remembers Troy Calhoun, who played Legion ball in 1983 and 1984 and is now the head football coach at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. “You always felt tremendous support, phenomenal support.”

For three decades Helen Lesh was the force behind The Friendly Kitchen, which served 550 meals a day through its Meals on Wheels program and at its dining room on Post Street. Lesh brought together the people who came to the first board meetings. She worked all the jobs associated with operating it — cooking, delivering, serving, devising menus, coordinating drivers.

She recruited companies to donate to the kitchen’s big Christmas dinner. She encouraged acquaintances to volunteer. She brought in Umpqua Community College culinary students to help prepare a Thanksgiving Day meal for up to 300 seniors.

She was active with the Red Cross for 40 years. She recruited corporate and private donors, organized events and helped run its bloodmobile.

She was generous with her own blood, and made sure others were as well.

“Every 56 days I had to go to the bloodmobile,” said Bill Lesh, 63. “She said that’s the legal number of days you have to wait before you can go back.”

Helen Lesh was known as someone to whom it was difficult to say “no.”

“She always found someone to do the job,” said Pakulak, who worked with Lesh at The Friendly Kitchen.

Former Legion player Jamie Burke said Lesh had the same question whenever she ran into him.

“She always asked me when I was going to come coach,” said Burke, who played 17 years of professional baseball, including 191 games in the Major Leagues.

He remembers Lesh’s smile and “spirit” greeting him and the other players at the beginning of each summer season.

“She was always supportive of the players,” he said. “You could tell she really loved baseball and being at the ball field.”

She was also wild about bowling. She bowled three times a week well into her senior years. She organized bowling tournaments and served in leagues at the local, state and national level.

She was active with Altrusa International and Roseburg Business & Professional Women. She helped create a plaque at Legion Field to honor star prep athlete Dick Smith. She registered people to vote and helped run polling places on election days.

For all her modesty about her public service, she was recognized for it. She was a Roseburg First Citizen and was named Volunteer of the Year eight years straight in The News-Review Readers’ Choice voting. In 2009, she won the White Rose Award from the March of Dimes.

Lesh leaves behind son Bill of Tucson and daughter Jan Rustad of Olympia, Wash., four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2007.

“It wasn’t hard to say ‘yes’ to my mom,” said Bill Lesh. “Because she was just asking you to do something you should do. She was asking you to step up and be a positive part of your community. She wanted you to be better. And she was right.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Mar 20, 2014 04:03PM Published Mar 20, 2014 01:08PM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.