Sue Helfer, 69, former OP village trustee, community advocate

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Former Oak Park village Trustee Susan Louise Helfer (nee Shafer), 69, died of a heart attack on March 22, at Rush Oak Park Hospital.

Ms. Helfer was in her doctor's office following up on treatment for a respiratory condition when she lost consciousness. She was rushed to the Emergency Room but medical personnel could not resuscitate her. The autopsy revealed a major rupture of her descending aorta.

Sue Helfer, a lifelong resident of Oak Park, was born March 27, 1935. She grew up on the 800 block of Harvey Avenue, across the alley from the home on Lombard Avenue where she raised her family.

A graduate of Longfellow School and Oak Park and River Forest High School, she was a co-founder of the CARE political party in Oak Park (Citizens Active for a Responsible Electorate), which pulled the first major upset of a VMA slate in 1985. Helfer was one of three CARE Party trustees elected. She served one term, then ran for village president in 1989 against John Philbin, who defeated her. Philbin recalled that she ran independently of the CARE Party during that election.

An avid and widely interested community activist, she helped organize the village's Neighborhood Watch program and started the Harrison Street Neighborhood Organization in the early 1980s. She also served as a board member of The Altenheim nursing home in Forest Park for 15 years; was a member of the board of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest; and was one of the activists responsible for saving the Oak Park Conservatory in the early 1970s.

Conservatory Director John Seaton recalled that Sue and her husband Hubert brought over their whole family to help with the "sweat equity" portion of the effort to revive the facility.

As a gardener, Sue was definitely a "naturalist," letting it "grow free," her husband said, and without using any pesticides.

"It was part of her free spirit," Hubert said, "nothing in straight, regular lines."

Oak Park Village Clerk Sandra Sokol met Helfer when they worked together establishing the Neighborhood Watch program in the 1980s. Sokol worked in the Community Relations Department while Helfer was a trustee.

"She was concerned about public safety, quality of life issues, citizen input," said Sokol. "She didn't run for trustee just to put something on her resume. She truly cared about the community. She was honest, had integrity and listened."

Sue worked at one point in Richard M. Daley's State's Attorney's office before Daley became mayor. After her political career ended, Helfer still used to pop in on Sokol, now in the Clerk's Office, to bring up neighborhood issues.

In the early 1990s, Helfer joined with other neighbors and Oak Park police to "take back" the Harrison Street neighborhood from young toughs who were hanging out and intimidating residents.

"It wasn't just about public safety with her," Sokol noted. "She enjoyed helping people and getting neighbors involved in the community."

"She was a person who really cared about the community first and foremost," said her husband. "Her activities were always focused on making life better for the people of the community."

The Helfers were also one of the original investors in Wednesday Journal Inc. when it began in 1980.

"Sue persuaded me to make the initial investment," Hubert said. "She said, 'We need this.'"

Sue was fun to be around and had a wide range of interests, Sokol said. John Seaton described her as "an inveterate collector" and has the iron flamingo sculpture donated from her garden to prove it.

Hubert said her "highly eclectic" interests included dolls and Native American art. She maintained a booth at At Home With Antiques in Forest Park, which, Hugh teased her, was just an excuse for buying more things.

"One-dimensional wasn't a term you could use with her," he said.

"She had an incredible track record of concern and involvement with a wide range of people," said Sokol. "She held her own. We need more people like Sue Helfer."

Susan Helfer was preceded in death by her parents, James (Pete) and Ruth (nee Ebersold) Shafer.

She is survived by her husband, Hubert; her children, David (Lisa), Deborah (James) Fitzsimmons, Ruth Wardwell, James and Steven; 10 grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and her sister, Ruth Stork.

She was cremated at Parkwyn Funeral Directors Crematory. Arrangements were handled by Heritage Funeral Home in Berwyn.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m., Saturday, April 30 at The Altenheim, 7824 W. Madison St. in Forest Park.

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