Helen Fontana Bechdel—Bellefonte—Helen F. Bechdel died peacefully at home after an illness on May 14th, 2013.
Helen was born in Lock Haven, PA, in July, 1933, the third of four children born to Andrew and Rachel Fontana. She was a graduate of the Immaculate Conception High School and Lock Haven State Teacher’s College. At LHSTC she was active in the College Players, debuting in the role of the second Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca, and playing the lead in The Heiress. After two years of college, Helen did a summer internship at Tufts Arena Theater in Boston, followed by a one-year apprenticeship at the Cleveland Playhouse. After this, she returned to Lock Haven and finished her degree in secondary education.
Helen met her future husband, Bruce A. Bechdel when they were both performing in a college production of The Taming of the Shrew. Upon graduation, Helen moved to New York City for two years, working as a secretary and studying acting with Uta Hagen at the esteemed HB Studio. In the city, Helen also attended as many plays, operas, poetry readings, concerts, and jazz performances as was humanly possible.
In 1959, Helen and Bruce were wed in Luzerne, Switzerland. Bruce was stationed in Germany with the US Army, and the couple remained in Europe for almost a year before returning to make their home in Beech Creek, PA.
While raising three children, Helen began to work as a substitute teacher in area schools. She also taught for a time in the Upward Bound Program, preparing rural and low-income students to attend college. She received a Master of English Education from Penn State University in 1974. A dedicated and hardworking high school teacher, Helen was passionate about curriculum development, and disappointed by the movement away from formal grammar instruction. She was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English.
Helen and her husband spent years meticulously restoring their Gothic Revival house in Beech Creek. The home was included on a Bicentennial House Tour of Clinton County in 1976. And in 1978, it won the Clinton County Historical Society’s Annual Preservation Award. Helen was a devoted mother, a gracious hostess, a superb cook, and a consummate housekeeper. And she managed all these things with apparent effortlessness while working full time and pursuing her creative interests with both passion and discipline.
For many summers, Helen was involved with the Millbrook Playhouse in Mill Hall, either performing or working on costumes—often both. Some of her notable roles at Millbrook were Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, Frosine in Molière’s The Miser, and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady.
In the 1970s, Helen also began performing at Boal Barn Playhouse. Some of her roles there included Penelope Sycamore in You Can’t Take it With You, Fanny Cavendish in The Royal Family, and Diana in California Suite. She did costume design for numerous productions at Boal Barn, including The Pajama Game and The Sound of Music.
She did extensive acting and costume work with other local theater groups, including State College Community Theatre, the Project for the Performing Arts in Bellefonte, Bellefonte’s Victorian Christmas, and faculty shows at the high school.
Helen was also a gifted pianist. She studied and practiced seriously for many years, with a special fondness for the Romantic repertoire. Helen found her study with the late Phyllis Triolo of State College particularly rewarding.
Helen inherited a passion for opera from her father Andrew Fontana. As an active member of the Music Club of Lock Haven, he was featured in many concerts and radio broadcasts as a baritone soloist and quartet member. For many decades, it was rare for Helen to miss a Saturday Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast, and when the State Theater began playing simulcasts, she was in regular attendance.
Although she grew up in Lock Haven and raised her family in Beech Creek, the town of Bellefonte—with its Victorian architecture, vertiginous hills, and vital community life—always held a special place in Helen’s heart. Her grandparents met there when they were both employed by the Bush House Hotel, in the days when Bellefonte was a busy railway stop. Helen began teaching English at Bellefonte Area High School in 1977, and taught there for 21 years. After her husband’s death, she moved to Bellefonte permanently. She transitioned from her ornate Victorian mansion to a small Craftsman bungalow, drawn to the simplicity of Arts and Crafts style. She loved being a part of Bellefonte. She was active for many years with the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association, holding the offices of Vice President and President. She served on the selections committee for the Local Government Grant awards, funded by the PA Council on the Arts. In recent years she served on the Bellefonte curriculum committee of OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), helping to plan courses and occasionally leading one. She was a member of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.
After her retirement from Bellefonte Area High School in 1998, Helen was able to devote herself to her primary passions: reading and writing. She read widely, with a particular interest in poetry and the lives of poets. She stayed abreast of literature reviews and theater criticism as well as the latest style and fashion news. She delighted in her grandchildren Willow, Lyra, and Rigel, and loved to engage in imaginative, frequently costume-bedecked play with them.
In addition to her own writing practice, Helen began in 2002 to write regular articles and reviews for the Centre Daily Times. From 2005 to 2009, she also wrote a lifestyle column for the paper, on topics ranging from food, culture, and the history of Bellefonte, to personal stories. Her columns were incisive, deeply observant, and often very funny—like the one about her attempt to cure herself of arachnophobia by visiting a tarantula at the Frost Entomological Museum.
Helen loved and hated being “on deadline.” She worked on her column with the same complete focus that she brought to everything she did. She was a New York Times crossword puzzle fanatic, and a longtime member of the Bellefonte YMCA. She was swimming her regular sixty lap workout until 10 weeks before her death.
Helen enjoyed traveling and visiting used bookstores and museums with her partner Dr. Robert Fenichel. She had a special interest in American Impressionist painting. Helen took maximal advantage of the cultural offerings of Penn State, frequently attending lectures, concerts and plays, taking in exhibits at the Palmer Museum of Art, and prowling the stacks of Pattee Library.
She was a woman of great elegance, kindness, courage, strength, dignity, critical discernment, and wit, and she will be terribly missed.
Helen was predeceased by her husband Bruce A. Bechdel, and her two brothers, Andrew, Jr. and Joseph Fontana. She is survived by her partner Dr. Robert Fenichel of State College, her sister Mary Fontana Misch and brother-in-law Ed Misch of Lenox, MA, and her three children, Bruce Christian Bechdel of State College, Alison Bechdel and partner Holly Rae Taylor of Bolton, VT, and John Bechdel and wife Leanne of Mifflinburg, as well as three grandchildren, Willow, Lyra, and Rigel Bechdel.
Friends will be received at the Wetzler Funeral Home, 206 N. Spring St., Bellefonte, PA on Thursday, May 16, from 6-8pm. There will be a wake service at 7:45 pm with Deacon Tom. Funeral Mass will be Friday, May 17, at 12:30 pm, at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 134 E. Bishop St., Bellefonte, with Father Valentine J. Bradley officiating. The burial will be private at the convenience of the family, but friends are invited to a reception at Helen’s home between 3-7pm on Friday. Memorial contributions may be made to the Mid-State Literacy Council, 248 E Calder Way, State College, PA 16801.