Helen Finkelstein Bruner died on May 9, 2014 after a long and productive life. In spite of multiple sclerosis for her last thirty years, she was an inimitable spirit. She was born to Ruby and Nathan Finkelstein on September 4, 1922 in Pittsfield Massachusetts. She became a conversationalist sitting on the stairs talking with her grandmother Nina Levy Rosenfeld who shared the house along with the rest of her mother`s extended family. Her uncle Jay, who ran the family clothing business with his brother Stanley, was a violinist and Helen loved the chamber groups playing in the living room.
While known from the 1970s for her annual women`s parties promoting the season`s Democratic campaigns as well as her later letters to the White House during the two Bush presidencies, this was only the continuation of a an active social and political life begun in 1941. After two years at Wellesley, Helen came to Madison for what she called her “junior year abroad” and never left. In the fall of her senior year she married Ervin Bruner, a UW law student and campus co-op organizer. After receiving a BA in economics in 1943, Helen worked at the Wisconsin School for Workers.
Helen accompanied Erv to Army training camps until he shipped out to serve in the infantry in Europe during World War II. She then went to work at Time magazine in New York City. She loved to talk about her war time New York life, including skating at Rockefeller Center during her lunch breaks, especially as the dancing partner of the professional instructor. After the war Helen and Erv lived at Truax Field, then in “the Bush”, before moving to the new Crestwood co-op community. In 1953 they started a life in the country that would last until 2004. The “Smith” farm south of Verona, and then their beloved “Willow Brook” farm near Mt. Horeb, were the scene of many parties and picnics, but also working farms where the family raised sheep and cattle, as well as chickens for Helen`s long term egg route to friends in Madison. During the first lambing season in 1954, Helen was alone on the farm with two small children and a month old baby. After a stressful night of treks to the barn through blizzard conditions to set up heat lamps for newborn lambs, Helen sent Erv (at an out of town meeting) a telegram “twins, three sets, Helen.” In addition to gardening, canning, freezing, and caring for the livestock, she wrote stories about farm life, was a full partner in her husband`s state assembly and judgeship campaigns, and kept up her work in Democratic politics and the League of Women Voters, for which she was honored for 50 years of service.
In 1960 she became a Research Assistant for a special project in the UW School of Home Economics, surveying the financial security of farm families. From 1961 to 1966 she was a UW Economics Department Project Assistant to Professor Elizabeth Brandeis Raushenbush, serving as the staff member of the fledgling Governor`s Committee on Migratory Labor of which Raushenbush was chairwoman. Helen was later appointed by Governor Knowles and reappointed by Governor Lucey to the Governor`s Committee on Migratory Labor and served as the Committee`s secretary. University President Weaver appointed Helen to represent the University on the Latin American Council. She went on to become a Specialist in the Center for Community Leadership Development, UW Extension, and member of the Latin American Project steering committee in Madison. Helen also served as a local member of the United Migrant Opportunity Services advisory committee to help migrant families resettle in Wisconsin, find full time employment, training, and opportunity programs.
She was the group leader in conflict resolution sessions between black students at University Wisconsin - Whitewater and white members of the community, which she documented in “The College and the Small Community: An Account of Collective Decision-Making,” Journal of Extension, Winter 1971.
She conducted programs under a variety of grants as an Instructor the Center for Community Leadership Development. As part of her Extension Division work, Helen was a significant contributor to the effort to improve the juvenile justice system. Helen’s last professional role was as one of “Midge`s Girls” for Assemblywoman Midge Miller.
Helen’s husband Ervin died in 2008. She is survived by her brother Robert J. Finkelstein; three children Mary, Catherine, and Jefferson; four grandchildren Margaret, Peter, Max, and Raisa; and two great grandchildren Nicholas and Rebecca. The family will have a private commemoration at a later date. Memorials to any cause of your choice are appreciated. Helen donated her brain for MS research in the hope that it would advance treatment and understanding of this disease. The family wishes to thank the staff of Agrace Hospice for excellent care.