Penman No. 6: The Two Helen Richeys

Penman for Monday, July 30, 2012

ONE OF the things that users and collectors of vintage items like fountain pens have to deal with is the fact that these objects were once owned by people who are now, to put it starkly, dead. Through some circuitous route, something that they once held and possibly cherished has come down to us, making its way halfway around the world and providing another lifetime of service and pleasure to its new owner.

Quite a number of the 100+ vintage pens in my collection have names inscribed on them. Since these pens come mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, and since a fountain pen (especially a gold-nibbed one as opposed to a “school pen” that kids like me learned to use in the 1950s and 1960s) would have been something that adults would have owned, it’s reasonable to assume that these names belonged to persons long gone.

Some collectors don’t like these inscriptions and engravings, seeing them as imperfections that drastically lower the monetary value of the objects they’re imprinted on. I strongly disagree. I take them as part of the pen’s provenance, a direct link to the man or woman who once held the pen in his or her hand—who wrote letters of love and joy or anger and sorrow, who signed checks that grew a business and cards that made someone’s day. Few things are more private and personal than a pen—it told your deepest secrets, and you can choose and customize a nib to write exactly the way you want it to.

When I started collecting pens thirty years ago, there was no Internet as we know it today, so there was no way short of spending hours poring over genealogical records to establish just who someone like “F. J. QUIRK”—the donor of my first Parker Vacumatic—was. By the time I got hold of a pen-and-pencil set of Parker Mandarin Duofolds belonging to “BLANCHE SAVIDGE” a few years ago, it took me only a few seconds to discover that Blanche had died at age 95 in December 2007; she had been a longtime teacher in her community in Pennsylvania, had never married, and was described as a “staunch Republican.” Or was she indeed my Blanche? Another Blanche Savidge, born ten years later in 1923, died in 2010 at the age of 87 in El Paso, Texas (curiously enough, she had also been an active Republican). The likelihood, of course, was that it was the Pennsylvania Blanche who owned my Duofolds, because I got them in November 2008, when the Texas Blanche was still alive.

This puzzle came to mind again a couple of weeks ago when I received a bunch of old pens from my sister Elaine in Virginia—pens I had picked up on eBay, with the idea of keeping a few and selling off the rest. One of the pens in the batch was a sweet little Sheaffer Balance in red-veined gray pearl and gold trim from 1934 (after you deal with these pens for a few years, you’ll know their names and birthdates by heart). I had expected something bigger—most of the time, you never really know when all you have on eBay are the pictures, with very little description—so I decided, to help recover my costs on the other pens, that this Sheaffer would go to the pile for sale, as pretty as it was.

Before posting it for sale, however, I gave in to my curiosity and Googled the name on the pen: HELEN RICHEY. The pen looked so fresh and the name was embossed so sharply in gold that it appeared that the pen had been used very little, if at all, these past 78 years. Assuming that Ms. Richey had been at least 20 when she received the pen—it was a high-end Sheaffer that a parent or a spouse might have given Helen on a graduation or a birthday—she would be approaching 100 today, were she alive.

What I found on Google and Wikipedia floored me. There were, inevitably, a number of Helen Richeys that appeared in the search, but at the top of the list were two—the first, an Australian dancer who still serves a judge on the Australian edition of Dancing with the Stars; scratch that one out. The other prominent Helen Richey was a pioneering woman aviator (or “aviatrix,” as they used to be called), the first woman to be hired as a commercial pilot by a US airline. Born in 1909, this Helen once partnered with Amelia Earhart in a transcontinental air race, finishing creditably, and was the first woman to carry mail by air and among the first to teach flying. Sadly her life and career took a tragic downturn: an all-male pilots’ union forced her out of the cockpit, and she committed suicide in 1947.

What an amazing life that was; what an education I’d had in just five minutes, and what an honor it would be if I had the flying Ms. Richey’s pen in my hand. The year this Sheaffer was made, 1934, was also the year Richey won the first national women’s air race in Pennsylvania, and the year she was hired by Central Airlines, a precursor of United. Might the Sheaffer have been a presentation gift, quickly put aside in her rush to return to the cockpit?

As fascinating as that scenario was, I then remembered that the pen came to me from a seller in Illinois, and so I Googled “Helen Richey Illinois”, and discovered yet another Helen Richey, a lady who had been born in Gerlaw, Illinois in 1919, and who had died in the area in February 2012. Suddenly it made more sense for her to be the pen’s Helen; I had bought the pen on eBay in May, a few months after her death, presumably as part of her estate. While she was no barnburner, this Helen had also lived a full life, working in a local school.

And that, I thought, was that—until I did some figuring and realized that the second Helen would have been only 15 when the pen came into the stores and into her purse; not impossible, but unlikely. Furthermore, this Helen had had two husbands—William Nicol and then John Richey—so that “Richey” was her second husband’s surname (John died in 1995). So she got the Sheaffer only after her second wedding; her eldest son George Nicol still lives in Texas and whose age is given by LinkedIn at around 60-64, putting his birthdate at between 1948 and 1952, suggesting that Helen didn’t get married until she was at least 28. Even if she was with William for only a few years before marrying John, she still would have had to be in her 30s—in the early 1950s—when she got the Sheaffer with John’s surname on it.

Given that the 1950s were flush with swanky new pen designs, why would anyone give a loved one, or even oneself, a pen from 1934? Was it possible, even vaguely, that the other, the airborne Helen, whose timeframe accounts much better for the pen, had some Illinois connection? I’ve yet to find out.

More strange connections exist: if this were the flyer’s pen, I’d give it to my son-in-law, who works in the aviation industry and who collects aviation memorabilia in San Diego, California, where a pictorial biography of Helen Richey can be found at the Air and Space Museum.

I’ll leave it to those with sharper genealogical skills and better resources to tease this mystery out. In any case, now that I know this much about both Helen Richeys, I’m keeping the pen, which has suddenly made a friend, across the years and miles, of perfect strangers.

 (Helen Richey’s photo from

2 thoughts on “Penman No. 6: The Two Helen Richeys

  1. ha ha, indeed you did, hazel, so sorry about that! but don’t worry, i’ll find something suitable for you–maybe a red vacumatic once used by a famous doctor 😉

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