Helen Blackledge, 103, of Fort Wayne has had some difficult times in her life— things that most of us will probably never have to endure. Yet, she has never given in to discouragement or the wonder of waking up each day.
Helen Blackledge was born on August 24, 1907, in Allen County. She grew up in Warsaw, Indiana, with two parents and two brothers. She developed an interest in music at an early age when her mother began giving her piano lessons at age three.
After graduating from high school in 1926, Blackledge attended Indiana University (IU) at Bloomington where she majored in music. Her goal was to teach in schools.
While studying at IU, Helen was a member of the Chi Omega sorority. She was also a friend of William Blackledge, another education student. After he graduated from IU in 1929 and she, in 1930 with a Bachelor of Science in music, they married.
At that time women were prohibited from holding teaching positions in Indiana. Helen could not find a job. So the Blackledges moved to the Philippines where both found jobs as teachers for nationals.
The Blackledges were still in the Philippines in 1941, along with their two sons, David and Robert who were born overseas, when the Japanese invaded the islands.
At the time of the invasion Bill Blackledge was a Reserve officer with Luzon Force, at Bataan. He and 75,000 other people were captured by the Japanese and forced to participate in a grueling hike to a prison camp 60 miles away. Today, this horrendous experience is referred to as the ‘Bataan Death March’ because an estimated 11,000 prisoners died during the week-long trek, which included exposure to disease, starvation, dehydration, and extreme heat. Bill Blackledge survived the ordeal. Sadly, he died in 1945 as a result of his inhuman treatment from the march.
Helen Blackledge and her sons fared little better while being forced to live for three years in an internment camp on an island in the Philippines.
After the war and her husband’s death, Helen Blackledge and her sons returned to the United States. By now, women were allowed to teach and Helen was hired by Fort Wayne Community Schools. She taught in various schools in the system over the years, eventually serving as Principal at Southern Heights Elementary School. She earned a Masters Degree in Education at Columbia University in New York City in 1951 and became President of the Indiana Teacher’s Association in 1964.
Helen stayed in the field of education until she retired in 1974 at age 65. She has good memories of those years of contacts with parents and children. “It was nice to establish an understanding with each other,” she said.
Throughout her life, Blackledge never forgot her alma mater, Indiana University. For several years Blackledge was an active participant in the college’s alumni relations program and in 1975 she was recognized for her efforts by being awarded the Gertrude Rich Award. In 1980 she was inducted into IU’s Emeritus Club for alumni of 50 years or more.
Among her other accomplishments Blackledge served on the board of directors of Professional Credit Union beginning in 1983. She became an emeritus member in 1998, the first board member to be honored with such a title.
Blackledge, who has lived at Kingston Healthcare since June 2001, followed IU sports for years, attending home and away games. Today, she watches them on the big screen TV at Kingston.
In 2009 she Met Dane Fife, former IU basketball player and current head coach of the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) Mastodons men’s basketball team when he attended her 102nd birthday party. He gave Blackledge two signed basketballs, which she keeps in her room.
Blackledge still plays the piano and enjoys songs, especially those by Frank Sinatra. She loves to read biographies, historical fiction, and mysteries. Her favorite author is Janet Evanovich.
Today her family includes seven grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild. In summer 2010 Blackledge traveled to Kansas City for a family reunion.
She says the secret to a long life is nothing new. “Keep a positive attitude,” she said. “Eat properly and enjoy everything as you go along.”
Previously published in the Ossian Sun Riser; reprinted with permission