Helen Rattray

Obituary of Helen Rattray

Helen Rattray (Bowman)

From high school homecoming queen – yes, she was often forced to confess, there were only eight students in her class – Helen Rattray led a quaintly rural American life that took an unexpected turn in her later years, when she often found herself sitting in a café in Rochester, New York. A woman in her 90s, patiently listening to rock bands playing electric guitars.

Mrs. Rattray was 94 when she died Wednesday at Rochester General Hospital. She had spent the last few months battling congenital heart failure and a series of strokes, following a life of robust health that left people she was meeting for the first time with the impression that Mrs. Rattray was at least a decade younger than her actual years. Although there is no scientific research to back up the claim, Mrs. Rattray did sometimes concede that an occasional glass of white wine may have played a role in her good health.

She was born in 1924 in a farmhouse in Stoutsville, Ohio. As is often the case where the roads bear the names of the families that live there, much of Mrs. Rattray's life unfolded on this rural landscape. She went to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and left for a year to take care of her mother who had suffered a stroke, before returning to complete her bachelor's degree in 1946. After graduating, she married Richard Rattray, who was just out of the Army with the end of World War II, and moved into a house he had built in Chillicothe, a few miles from Circleville, where Mr. Rattray worked as a salesman for Kraft Foods. But within a few years, the couple had opened a downtown Chillicothe business, which started as a storefront selling automotive accessories such as seat covers and knick-knacks that included a toy donkey that lifted its tail to deliver a cigarette, before the business evolved into a lawn and garden store.

Besides helping her husband handle the store, including the bookkeeping, Mrs. Rattray was a home economics teacher at Centralia High School and later Adena High School in Frankfort, Ohio. She and her husband also raised two children.

When the couple semi-retired in the early '90s, they sold the lawn and garden store and took yearly trips to winter at a retirement community in Mesa, Arizona, where they learned the arts of pottery making and hot tubbing. They also took a trip to Scotland to attend a Rattray clan gathering, finding centuries of dead Rattrays in the cemeteries. And they concluded work on remodeling what had once been an old hog house, next door to the house on Stoutsville Pike where Mrs. Rattray was born and raised. With the addition of a roomy bedroom, they made it their permanent residence, filling most of the flat surfaces with the ceramic pigs that friends gave them as gifts.

After Mr. Rattray died in 2004, Mrs. Rattray continued to pursue her lifelong passions of sewing, knitting, reading and exercising. She also did volunteer work at Berger Hospital, visited relatives – most of them lived down the road – and religiously attended Circleville Presbyterian Church. As she turned 90, she was still conducting all of the business aspects of more than a dozen rental units that she and her husband accumulated over the years. She traveled to the western United States and a cruise around Hawaii with her niece Carrol Stevens. Mrs. Rattray was 92 when she went to Hannibal, Missouri, for the wedding of one of her grandsons, even taking a dance with the groom.

But a year later, she told her daughter that she felt she could no longer live on her own, prompting her move to Rochester. There she was drawn into a social circle that included musicians and artists and dinner invitations to their homes, a women's monthly dinner club, New Year's Eve parties, and frequent trips to The Little Café for music. She learned to quilt while attending Margaret's classes and quilt retreats. During one hospitalization, a friend brought her harp to her room and played for Mrs. Rattray. In August, two other musician friends put on a concert for her 94th birthday and other residents at The Legacy, an independent-living residence where she had moved to after suffering a stroke in April.

In the days following her death, Mrs. Rattray, who had never in her long life touched a computer, received hundreds of tributes from friends and admirers via social media.

Mrs. Rattray was preceded in death by her husband of 58 years, Richard, and a sister, Mary Kathryn (Bob) Lands. She is survived by her daughter Margaret (Jeff) Spevak of Rochester; son Scott (Gail) Rattray of Naperville, Illinois; and two grandsons, Michael Rattray and Ethan (Kirste) Rattray, both of Chicago. Calling hours for Mrs. Rattray will be 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at Defenbaugh Wise Schoedinger Funeral Home in Circleville, Ohio. Funeral service will be 10 a.m. Friday at Circleville Presbyterian Church, with burial next to her husband immediately following at Maple Hill Cemetery in Stoutsville, about a mile from where she was born.

There will also be a celebration of her life at The Little Café in Rochester, New York, on Sunday, October 28, from 1 to 4 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in her name be made to Circleville Presbyterian Church or WXXI public television/radio in Rochester, NY.

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