By Jared L. Olar
Local History Specialist
Among the women and men of Pekin who have risen to fortune or fame was Helen Hiett Waller (1931-1961), a talented journalist and war correspondent who is remembered as a cosmopolitan.
Starting out as a teenage reporter with the Pekin Daily Times, Helen was the valedictorian of Pekin Community High School’s Class of 1931. After graduation she went to Europe and reported on the Spanish Civil War. During World War II she was NBC’s war correspondent, remaining in Paris, France, during Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg and having to flee before the advancing Nazi tank columns. Later in the war, she sneaked into Nazi Germany and made it to Berlin.
Sadly, her fearlessness ultimately contributed to her untimely death at age 47, when she succumbed to injuries that she suffered while skiing in the French Alps in the summer of 1961. The Pekin Daily Times devoted a lengthy front-page obituary to her, paying tribute to her remarkable life. In his column, Daily Times publisher F. F. McNaughton observed, “Helen didn’t live out her years; but she lived a dozen lives.”
In 1944, Helen wrote a book about her life and adventures entitled, “No Matter Where.” A copy of her book, which formerly belonged to one of Helen’s high school chums Roberta Lindstrom, recently was donated to the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection by Sue Price, in memory of her mother (who was a friend of Roberta). Interleaved with the book are old, browned clipping of her obituary and of the two columns that McNaughton wrote in her memory. The obituary, dated Wednesday, 23 Aug. 1961, reads as follows:
“Injured In Mountain-Climbing Mishap”
“Helen Hiett Waller, Ex-Pekin Newswoman, Succumbs In France”
“Life ended unexpectedly Tuesday morning in a hospital in the Chamonix Valley of eastern France for a former Pekin woman who had filled her comparatively short lifetime with adventure and achievement made possible only by a rare combination of brains, ability and ambition.
“Helen Hiett Waller, 47, who began her career as a reporter for the Pekin Daily Times while she was still a schoolgirl, and who spent exciting years reporting the Spanish civil war and World War II in Europe, died of a blood clot, following surgery to repair injuries incurred in a mountain-climbing mishap last month.
“Helen had spent the summer with her three children in Switzerland, and her husband, Theodore Waller, had joined them during this vacation. It was while the couple was climbing Mt. Perseverance that Helen was struck by a falling rock and suffering internal injuries.
“Her husband and the children remained with her until doctors assured them that she was recovering satisfactorily, and then returned to their home at Katonah, N.Y., to make preparations for the opening of school.
“Mr. Waller called the hospital Sunday and learned that a third operation had been necessary, but that his wife was getting along well. However, an embolism developed, and she died suddenly Tuesday morning.
“Born at Chenoa, Il., Sept. 23, 1913, she was the daughter of Asa B. and Estella Erb Hiett, who later moved to Pekin, where Helen attended school and was graduated from Pekin high school as valedictorian of the Class of 1931.
“She reported school news while still in the eighth grade, and after she entered high school worked part-time and during the summers for the TIMES.
“Her ‘nose for news’ led her all over town, as well as out into the Times area, and her ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ made her an extremely successful reporter, qualities which stood her in good stead throughout her years as a war correspondent.
“Upon completing high school, she entered the University of Chicago, receiving her degree there in three years instead of the usual four, and earning a grant to study at London University.
“A resident of many countries of Europe from 1934 to 1941, Helen made it a practice to live with families in Germany, Russia, France, Italy and Spain, learning their languages and their ways of life. She also spent some time working in youth camps in both Germany and Russia.
“During her years in Europe, she worked first for the League of Nations, editing a monthly review of international affairs. At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the staff of the National Broadcasting Company as a commentator and war correspondent, reporting from Paris until that city fell to the Germans and after that from Madrid, Spain.
“She spent most of the war years abroad, in the thick of things, where her experiences included flying to front-line trenches and reporting on-the-spot experiences during the air raids on Paris, Bordeaux and other European cities.
“Several times during the war years of the 1940’s, she returned to the United States and made personal speaking appearances in Pekin and Peoria.
“Following the war, she also spent some time in Mexico, where she wrote a book relating her experiences, which she entitled, ‘No Matter Where.’
“In 1945 she joined the New York Herald Tribune Forum as director, touring the world to arrange for hundreds of national leaders from foreign countries to visit the United States to participate in the Forum, which continued for a period of 10 years. Starting in 1946, Helen directed a Herald Tribune forum for high school youth, which brought students from 74 countries to the United States.
“Her marriage to Theodore Waller, who has been engaged in various federal government projects and the United Nations, occurred at Pekin Mar. 28, 1948.”
F. F. McNaughton devoted his “Editor’s Letter” that day to her death:
“So Helen Hiett is dead!
“If Dean, in his fone call, had asked us to guess, Helen is the LAST person we would have named.
“Helen ignored death.
“The last time we saw Helen was last summer when she and her wonderful children stopped at our cottage enroute to the Rocky Mountains where they were to risk their lives climbing; then, if they survived, they planned to shoot some rapids.
“This spring she wrote that they were going to Chamonix to climb this summer.
“It brought memories.
“In late winter of 1937 Ceil and I met Helen at Chamonix in the Alps. We climbed into a teleferique (basket on a cable) and were hauled over space (our first space flight) to the top of a famous mountain.
“Helen was not yet an expert skier. But she strapped on a pair of skis; then for several minutes she watched the experts of the world take off as they prepared for a big ski meet.
“Suddenly Helen took off.
“The last we saw of her, she went over the rim, head over heels. But when we, frightened for her and half frozen, rode the bucket back down, there was Helen.
“Today we think we worry over Berlin. There was a day when Berlin gave us terror. It was the day Hitler swept over France. We sat at our radios and with our own ears heard Hitler shout that history for a thousand years was being made as his panzer divisions swept toward Paris.
“Helen was NBC in Paris.
“She stayed so long that she finally had to flee across pastures. She slept in wheatfields.
“During the war she sneaked back into Germany – clear to Berlin.
“Helen started her newspapering as the Pekin Times high school reporter. Then thru Chicago University in 3 years; and off to Europe where she learned the language wherever she went.
“If I’m correct, she saw Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their heels.
“Helen always thought of herself as a girl; so it was fitting that her greatest work was with the youth of all the world. She ran the New York Herald-Tribune’s ‘Youth Forum’ and did an amazing job of presenting to the world the viewpoint of the youth of the world.
“Wherever she is – whatever height she is climbing – you can be sure Helen has Youth with her.
“Helen didn’t live out her years; but she lived a dozen lives.
“Pekin mourns her.
“And salutes her.”
McNaughton devoted a second column to her in late November perhaps the following year, in which he featured a photograph of her grave near Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France.
In that “Editor’s Letter” he wrote:
“You’ll recall we recently got a letter asking for a picture of the grave of Helen Hiett Waller at Chamonix, France. Helen’s sister, Margaret Whiteside, has sent this picture.
“Ceil and I once had ridden the teleferique with Helen to the top, and had watched her take off, dangerously, on skis.
“After she had wed and had 2 sons and a daughter, all under teen age, she still could not resist the urge to climb in the Alps.
“It cost her life, and on Aug. 24, 1961, 4 Alpine guides, as was the custom, carried her to this grave to be buried among others who rated danger above death.
“Helen had lived dangerously. For instance, while covering the war for NBC she fled thru wheat-fields ahead of Hitler’s blitzkrieg across France. (Later she slipped into Berlin during the war.)
“On Helen’s trips home, she never failed to have an SRO crowd when she reported to her home folk in Pekin’s biggest auditorium.
“On this Thanksgiving weekend we give thanks for wonderful memories. High among them are the memories of Helen Hiett Waller.”