Helen Z. Knudsen April 5, 1939 – June 20, 2020
Helen Knudsen (aka “Grandmother Helen”, “Dunbar Debutant”, “Wonder Woman”, or Helen’s favorite, self-assigned moniker, “Hag on the Hill”) was born 1939 in Kittery, Maine. Born into a Navy family, Helen spent her entire youth moving from place to place as her father’s naval assignments required. While the family was stationed in Chile, she became a talented artist and fluent in several dialects of Spanish.
As an adult, she graduated with top honors from Principia College Illinois, moved to California, married, raised three children, and achieved multiple degrees at Cal State College Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. In the midst of all of this, she found time to be a lifeguard as well as help disabled, Spanish-speaking students complete their college degrees by translating their study materials.
In 1973, her notable academic achievements and “can-do” attitude secured her position as the head librarian for the Astrophysics Division at CalTech. In this capacity, she provided oversight to all of CalTech’s astrophysics libraries around the world. In assisting a number of scientists to include Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Robert Sharp with collecting information for their research, Helen identified an information gap in the world of astrophysics research. In response, she developed a database of materials on all discovered astrophysical objects, the Astronomy, and Astrophysics Monthly Index. To this day, the database she created still receives recognition. She was a principal in the team that developed the first Astrophysics Thesaurus (T-rex”). In the ‘80s – ‘90s, Helen was tasked by NASA to consult on NASA’s Extragalactic Database, Galileo Space Probe, and organize research projects for the Hubble Telescope mission. In 1995, she was presented with the Director’s Award for Women’s Achievements in Astronomy. Don’t be surprised if you are just learning this about Helen; she found that speaking of such things at cocktail parties tended to be a bit of a “buzz kill”.
All the while, she enjoyed being an avid backpacker and overall great adventurer. She visited Canada, Australia, Nepal, China, Russia, numerous countries in Western Europe, and hiked all over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Death Valley.
The point to all of this background on Helen is that, of all her accomplishments, of all of the places she traveled, and the people she met; it was Lander – and the surrounding communities – that completely enveloped her heart and caused her to choose this place – above all others – to make her forever home. Helen was constantly in awe at the generosity and kindness she witnessed here. She had mentioned several times that she was quite certain that this little pocket of Wyoming is where angels are sent to earn their wings.
After building her unique, geodesic dome house on Dunbar Meadows, she served on the Volunteer Fire Department, as the Librarian for Wind River Tribal College, as a substitute school teacher, a care-giver for Fremont County Community Entry Services’ special needs clients, and as an interpreter (and often an advocate) for the local sheepherders. It was completely commonplace for her to stop her little blue Rav4 along the highway to offer assistance to stranded motorists and hitchhikers. It was well-known that she would invite stray snowmobilers and cross-country skiers to her home for a hot meal. Her well-timed, common-sense observations, cheeky sense of humor, and her trademark sarcastic wit endeared her to many.
Living out in the foothills of the Wind River mountains provided her a never-ending feeling of peace and gratitude. While it also provided a constant trickle of challenges, she never regretted sinking every bit of her retirement savings into her home and property.
It was only a few years ago that downturns in her health forced her to switch from snowshoeing the three miles from her house out to her car on the highway, to using her tracked side-by-side. Her friends and neighbors did a beautiful job keeping a close eye on her and jumping to her aid. She was fiercely determined to stay on Dunbar Meadows and everyone felt the obligation to their own spirits in helping her do just that. Most who knew her agree that we all saw a little bit of ourselves in Helen and admired the spirit that she possessed and pure grit to live the life many can only imagine. Her steely constitution was no fluke. Helen came from a long line of military ancestry documented back to a lieutenant in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, to her great-grandmother who joined the Union Army to serve as a nurse during the Civil War, and finally, her father, who was a Captain in the US Navy until 1957.
Significant changes in her health finally pushed her to move to Gardnerville, NV to be closer to family. She spent her last two and a half years making new friends and enjoying a beautiful view of the Sierra Nevada Range directly out her bedroom window.
Helen passed peacefully on June 20, 2020. She is survived by her daughters Karen, Christina, and Lois. She is now safe and pain-free in the arms of our Lord; feeling the full embrace of His tremendous love. Tonight, if you glance off to the south of Lander as the evening sky deepens, you’ll see the bright light of her spirit flying over her beloved Dunbar Meadows.