Helen Dowdeswell, 96, dies

She was a lover of language, preserver of history


Helen Dowdeswell, who spent more than two decades documenting the history of Valley Stream, died on May 19 at South Nassau Communities Hospital. She was 96.

Dowdeswell lived in Valley Stream most of her life, and resided at the Bristal Assisted Living facility in Lynbrook for the past three years. She attended Valley Stream schools and graduated from Adelphi University in 1934. A language major, she earned her master’s degree from New York University in 1938 and enriched her studies at the University of Grenoble in France where she lived and taught for a year. Dowdeswell was awarded a prestigious membership in the Society of the French Academic Palms by the French government.

She taught French and Spanish at the junior and senior high levels in Valley Stream for 35 years and was chairwoman of the foreign language department at North High School before retiring in 1971. During and after her years as an educator, she traveled extensively and visited 100 countries around the world. Although many times she was alone in her touring, her immense curiosity and quest for knowledge kept her on the move. Dowdeswell shared the resulting journals, photos and slides with her students and fellow parishioners at Grace United Methodist Church.

Dowdeswell, as a member of the Historical Society, created an oral history of Valley Stream. She interviewed people who lived in Valley Stream, and tape recorded their stories about growing up in the community.

The tapes — nearly 200 of them — are available to the public at the Henry Waldinger Library. Some of her subjects include Henry Anholzer, who was affiliated with Curtiss Airfield, Bert Keller, longtime assistant principal of Central High School, Betty DeGrace, mother of former Mayor John DeGrace, and Gordon M. Fairchild, who once owned the Pagan-Fletcher house.

“What she had done, almost singlehandedly— she had some help near the end — has made sure that Valley Stream history wasn’t going to be lost,” said Library Director Mamie Eng.

Dowdeswell began her interviews in the 1980s and continued making the tapes up until a few years ago. Toward the end, she was assisted by fellow Historical Society members Agnes Libath and Adele Hagmann.

Historical Society member Valerie Esposito said that Dowdeswell attended a meeting as recently as three months ago, expressing her desire for someone to pick up where she left off in creating the tape recordings.

Esposito said she grew up on Fletcher Avenue, down the street from Dowdeswell. The two also would lead tours together of the Pagan-Fletcher Restoration on Sundays. “I really enjoyed sitting with her and catching up,” Esposito said, “because she really was part of my life.”

About 10 years ago, Esposito said, there was a Central High School reunion for all graduating classes and Dowdeswell attended along with many of her former students. “They were just delighted to see her,” Esposito said. “They started speaking French with her.”

Libath, a friends of Dowdeswell’s from church and the Historical Society, described her as a “fine, intelligent woman.”

Throughout her 80s, Dowdeswell played golf, bowled and continued to travel. Right up to her last days she was reading two or three books a week.

A memorial service was held on May 23 at Grace Methodist Church, where she was described by all as amazing, unbelievable and dynamic, a woman born before her time. She is survived by numerous cousins and friends.