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Half-full/Mark Wilcox

First-grade teacher still having an influence

February 20, 2009
The Daily Mining Gazette

Earlier this month, a story appeared in newspapers throughout the Upper Peninsula, including ours, about a 79-year-old woman who is leaving home to start a school for the deaf in the Bahamas.

The article included a picture, which we've reprinted here, of Helmi Lepisto signing the world "Love." If only you knew how appropriate it was that she signed that particular word.

You see, to me, Helmi Lepisto is much more than a retired school teacher going off on a new adventure. She is one of my heroes.

Mrs. Lepisto, was my first-grade teacher, mother of one of my best friends, a pillar of our little community and quite possibly the finest person I've ever known.

As a teacher, she was user friendly decades before the words were coined. Her gentle manner made you want to succeed because she genuinely seemed proud of each and every accomplishment you made.

I'll never forget how she made learning an intimate experience. She was married to Elmer Lepisto, a local farmer, school bus driver and a real mountain of a man. He was well over 6 feet tall and Mrs. Lepisto used her husband as a teaching tool.

If something was about 10 feet tall, she would call it "One and a half Elmers,"

I used to joke that it wasn't until college that I discovered that an "Elmer" wasn't a standard unit of measurement.

Everything about her was gentle. Her smile, her voice, her laugh, even her house smelled friendly.

When I would visit her daughter Mary, who was in my grade, I just loved the smell of their house. It reminded me of my Aunt Signe's house. A home that made you feel welcome the moment you stepped inside.

But it was her going above and beyond, especially when it came to the deaf, where Mrs. Lepisto achieved heroine status.

Due to her first marriage to a deaf man, she developed an interest in teaching the hearing impaired and to teaching sign language to both hearing and non-hearing students.

I knew first-hand of her devotion because of my first cousin Carrie Ann, who was born deaf.

There were virtually no resources in our little town for a deaf child in the 1970s. All we had was Mrs. Lepisto, and to my cousin and her family, that was more than enough.

She took Carrie Ann under her wing, teaching her sign language as well as how to speak. Like Annie Sullivan before her, Mrs. Lepisto was a miracle worker. My cousin is a successful woman, in large part to Mrs. Lepisto.

Let me take that a step further. Any success I have had personally or professionally can directly be traced back to the role she played in my life. She is a woman of strong character, a woman of faith and much beloved.

It is certainly is not surprising that now in her "golden years," she isn't enjoying the rest that is surely due her. Now she's going off to continue her life's mission. Even as she approaches 80 years of age, she is ever the teacher. I'm not sure what she will need to start her new school. But she is bringing with her the most important teaching tool of all. The one she is signing in the picture. She's bringing love, and that certainly will be enough.



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