I suppose you could say that she's the Grande Dame of women's politics in Sonoma County. But no one who knows her would use that term to describe Helen Rudee.
Even as she approaches her 95th birthday, it's clear that she's not the Grande Dame type. If we were casting an actress to play her in a biopic, it would be Angela Lansbury, not Maggie Smith.
Helen, the first woman elected to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, didn't cut her teeth on the trappings of political power like Nancy Pelosi, the daughter of a congressman. Nor did she grow up planning to be a political activist.
She grew up on a farm in the Great Plains, five miles out of the very small town of Anamoose, North Dakota. She has a painting of Anamoose — the whole town — on the wall of her study. That's how small it was/is.
And if you doubt that she's a farm girl, just enter a cow-milking competition with her at the county fair. I did that once. She smoked me.
I interviewed Helen for a video history six years ago. When I decided to catch up on things last week, I thought it would be a short session. Two hours and 15 minutes later I left, chuckling over stories told, with enough notes to write a short book and a firm of belief that this is, indeed, a remarkable woman.
For starters, she is the "poster person" for the beginnings of women's politics in Sonoma County.
In 1976, she was the first woman elected to the Board of Supervisors. In her 12 years in office, her quiet determination and her refusal to be angered or dissuaded by opponents — or newspaper editorial writers who didn't think a woman could do the job — earned her a leadership role in this new "movement. "
Growing up in a houseful of brothers, she says, is where she learned to hold her own.
"I had five older brothers. And when I came to San Francisco to live with a great aunt and go to school, I had five older male cousins. "I always felt like I was the cat's meow." And she learned never to let them intimidate her.
"I was well-prepared for the Board of Education," she says, referring to her first foray into local politics. Her appointment and subsequent election to the Santa Rosa Board of Education put her with four strong (these days one might say "macho") men. Only one chauvinist put me down," she recalls. He only lasted one term.
Born in 1918 on that North Dakota farm where her family raised "just about everything — except ducks and geese. My father thought they were messy."
She has vivid memories of the Dust Bowl years, of the black clouds that blotted the sun and withered the crops. She remembers walking to high school with a kerchief wrapped over her mouth and nose, to keep the choking dust out of her throat.
The former Helen Browning came to Santa Rosa not once but twice — first in 1940 as a recent graduate of Stanford School of Nursing and as a new bride. Her physician husband, Ford Shepherd, was a resident at the county hospital. Bill Rudee, who would spend his professional life as a general practitioner in Santa Rosa, was in the same resident class.