August 17, 2017

Helen Lima, Presente!

Helen Lima and daughtersHelen and familyHell Raiser Award

By Margy Wilkinson

Helen Corbin Lima died peacefully in her sleep in the early hours of May 5, 2005. She had recently celebrated her 88th birthday. On the day she died she had lunch with friends at the North Oakland Senior Center and after a rest helped make a large pot of applesauce.

Helen and her twin brother Allen were born in March 31, 1917, in China where their father was a missionary. Helen returned to the U.S. permanently in 1928, the year her mother died. Helen graduated from high school in Henry, Illinois and went first to Carleton college and then to the University of Illinois in Urbana. She graduated with a degree in sociology and no hopes of finding a job in the Midwest. In 1938, a self declared atheist and non-conformist, she moved to Eureka, California where her older sister Clara was living. Clara had been part of the community support for the 1935 Eureka lumber strike and that attracted Helen. She worked part-time at a restaurant and cleaned houses before she finally found a job as a secretary for the fisherman’s union Local 38 in Eureka in 1939. Helen later wrote about this experience, “I learned CIO unionism—militant, democratic and politically progressive.” Helen’s job was to keep the books, track the treasury and take the minutes. She soon, however, became and organizer. That same year Helen joined the Community Party and in 1940 she married Albert J “Mickie” Lima who was a local leader in the CP.

Their first child, Margaret was born in 1943 and in 1945 the family moved to San Francisco. Helen went to work in the offices of the People’s World newspaper. Their second child, Michael was born in August of 1949 and in May 1951 their third child, Rachel, was born. Six weeks later Mickie and other leaders of the Communist Party were arrested under the Smith Act. For the next several years Helen’s life was consumed by the “Smith Act Defense.” By 1956 the job at the People’s World had become very part time and Helen went to work first in a small restaurant and then in the spring of 1957 in the kitchen at Herrick Hospital in Berkeley. In the summer of 1958 SEIU Local 250 struck at several East Bay hospitals for pay increase and union recognition. After a three-week strike they won union recognition and a nickel increase in pay. Helen, who had been a strike captain, became a rank and file union activist – and for the next 21 years she fought for workers on the job and for democracy and financial transparency in Local 250.

In 1979 Helen retired from Herrick and devoted her time to political work. She worked for peace, against racism and South African apartheid, in many local political campaigns and raised money for the People’s World newspaper. She also took care of her son Michael who suffered from schizophrenia until he committed suicide in 1982. In 1995 Helen lost her son-in-law Donzell in a tragic incident of street violence. In 1987 Mickie retired from full time work in the Community Party and Mickie and Helen spent long weeks at the family cabin in Fort Bragg. Mickie died in June 1989 and in early 1991 Helen moved into Strawberry Creek Lodge in Berkeley. Her only income was Social Security, so she applied for Section 8 housing – and a whole new realm of political activity opened up for her. From then until her death Helen was active in the fight for affordable housing and to save Section 8. In May 2000 she was given an affordable hosing leadership award for community activism by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. And in November 2004 she received the Hell Raiser of the Year award from Berkeley’s Hosing Rights, Inc.

Helen is survived by daughters Rachel and Margy and son-in-law Tony; grandchildren Jason and wife Rachel, Lila and Matthew; by great grandchildren Sofia and Mickie-and by scores of friends and admirers.