WELLFLEET — Helen G. Purcell, an energetic Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum volunteer for decades, died on Feb. 20, 2020 at the Manor on the Hill, an assisted-living facility in Leominster where she had lived since 2015.
She was 100 years old.
“Well before I got involved with the historical society, she piqued my interest by talking so passionately about it; she called it ‘the hidden gem of Wellfleet,’ ” said Dwight Estey, the historical society president. “She just got so many people involved.”
For 30 years, she was in charge of the house tours, a popular fund-raising event, he said.
She curated the museum collection, and her tours of Wellfleet became a template for other society volunteers, he said.
In honor of her contributions, a room of the newly renovated museum is dedicated to her.
“We’ll definitely miss her because she was a force to be reckoned with,” Estey said. “She had so much energy.”
Born in Leominster on June 22, 1919, she was a daughter of Gardner A. and Annie (McDonald) Gibson. Helen grew up in Lunenburg, graduating in 1936 from Lunenburg High School, where she excelled in academics and participated in athletics and school theatricals. She earned her degree from the State Teachers College at Fitchburg (now Fitchburg State University) in 1940 and a master’s degree at Harvard University.
She was working as a social studies teacher when she met her husband-to-be, fellow educator William D. Purcell. They married in 1943 in San Diego, where Bill was serving as a naval officer.
After the war she taught in several school districts in Massachusetts and other states, retiring from the Lexington Public Schools in 1973.
In retirement, she was an avid gardener at her home on Duck Creek, and an enthusiastic advocate for the Cape Cod National Seashore.
“She lived right on the marsh and she would talk about how the tides watered her garden,” said Susan Weegar, a longtime friend. “Apparently there was a lens of fresh water that would get pushed up when the tide rose.”
The Purcells were inveterate travelers, enjoying long stays in France, England, and Portugal, and at one point taking a round-the-world tour. For many years they maintained a winter home in Ocean Springs, Miss.
In 2004, Purcell embarked on a tour of France with a group that was learning French together at the Wellfleet Public Library. That’s how Weegar got to know her.
“We traveled around in one little car to all these villages and Helen and I often traveled in the back together,” Weegar said. “She was a character. She was very proper in the way she spoke. But she wasn’t a stuffy lady at all.”
Helen leaves five nephews, Michael Gibson of Walnut, Calif.; Paul Gibson of Topock, Ariz.; Thomas J. Kane of Winchendon; Dennis A. Kane of Pepperell; and Peter J. Kane of Wellfleet; and six nieces, Kathleen A. French of Lunenburg; Joanne Huse of Fitchburg; Helen M. Kane-O’Connor of Groton; Patricia M. Cormier of Milford, Ohio; Margaret I. Oliver of Wellfleet; and MaryJo Lomax of Los Altos, Calif. Besides her parents and husband, she was predeceased by her brother, Richard H. Gibson, and her sisters, Margaret R. Gibson and Mary G. Kane.
Visiting hour will be held at 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 7 at the Nickerson Funeral Home, 340 Main St., Wellfleet. A funeral Mass will follow at 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Route 6, Wellfleet.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Helen’s memory to the Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum, 266 W. Main St., Wellfleet 02667; Our Lady of Lourdes Church, 2282 US-6, Wellfleet 02667; or Activities Fund, Manor on the Hill, 450 N. Main St., Leominster, MA 01453. For online condolences, visit nickersonfunerals.com.