BEMIDJI – A world traveler, businesswoman, friend of the arts, Rotarian and education advocate.
Helen Gill was an “executive style lady” whose generosity, kindness and leadership inspired generations of Bemidjians. In her upper 90s, she died Wednesday.
“She was very much a cornerstone of the community,” said Liz Nichols, who as a child knew Helen and remembered spending holidays with her. “She was always such a lady. … She was so gracious and so lovely.”
Today, family and friends will gather at 11 a.m. for funeral services at Bemidji’s Cease Family Funeral Home.
On Thursday, numerous friends spoke of Helen, known for her community service and devotion to the Bemidji.
Jeff Gill, a nephew, said his aunt turned down a regent’s position with the University of Minnesota, fearing it would compete with her devotion to Bemidji State University. She graduated from both institutions.
He said Helen will be remembered as “serving as a role model for young women,” whom she mentored and encouraged civic and professional development.
Helen, born in a house on Bemidji’s Beltrami Avenue, graduated with a business degree from the University of Minnesota. She then returned to her hometown, where she received a master’s degree in counseling from BSU.
She and her brother Bill worked at Gill Brother’s clothing, started by their father, David Gill, in 1903 to serve lumberjacks. The building, on the corner of Third Street Northwest and Minnesota Avenue, bears the family name.
As friends recalled Helen, many also mentioned her late sister Noreen, with whom Helen often could be seen. The two sisters were close.
“Everyone knew Helen,” said Chris Keenan, who knew her through Bemidji Rotary Club and served on the board for the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, as did Helen for decades.
“The Gill family is one of the historic Bemidji families,” Keenan said. “It’s the end of an era.”
Helen also was responsible for starting Bemidji’s Art in the Park, the annual July festival that started in 1967.
“They (Helen and Noreen) were doing stuff women didn’t do in those times,” Keenan said. “With Helen’s passing, Bemidji loses a lot of history with it.”
Martin Graefe, president of the Bemidji Rotary Club, said without Helen, Bemidji would have neither the Playhouse nor Art in the Park.
He commended her for staying in touch with people, engaging them and expressing a genuine interest in others. Helen often brought new people, particularly BSU students, to Rotary meetings.
“I was always impressed with how she was connected with the next generation of leaders,” Graefe said.
During her business career, Helen became the first female president of Menswear Retailers of America, served on the Minnesota Retailers Board and participated in state and national retailing organizations. She retired in 1980.
Her legacy includes induction into the Northwest Minnesota Women’s Hall of Fame and being the recipient of the inaugural Friends of the Art award in 1989.
Helen was a past president of the BSU Alumni Association and a BSU Foundation board member. In 1990, she received the university’s Outstanding Alumni Award.
Marilyn Heltzer said she recalls Helen’s many travels, business sense and love for young people.
“She had such a fondness and admiration for young people,” Heltzer said. “Helen was ahead of her time in everything. … She was a great lady.”
Keenan said he recalls going to the Gill Brothers clothing store for Boy Scout patches.
“Helen always had a smile,” he said. “She loved people and loved to socialize.”
Her love for people was the reason Helen and her sister always ate in restaurants, Keenan said. Both could be seen walking in downtown Bemidji or visiting local eateries.
“She was well-liked and liked everyone,” Keenan said. “She had a great sense of humor. She was just plain fun to talk to.”
Lori Forshee-Donnay, executive director for Bemidji Community Art Center, described Helen as the “founding mother” of the arts center.
“She was always looking to bring the art experience to the community,” Forshee-Donnay said. “She was generous about her time and money, and often was behind the scenes.”
Forshee-Donnay, who opened the Tutto Bene restaurant in 1995, said the Gill sisters visited often to eat, and Helen always showed support for women in business.
Helen’s impact on some many facets of the community – including its business, arts and education – is rare, Forshee-Donnay said.
“For her to have that scope, that reach, in so many ways … is just really amazing,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to know Helen Gill and was inspired by her.”
Sue Kringen, former BSU alumni relations director, nominated Helen for the Northwest Minnesota Women’s Hall of Fame. She described Helen as a role model for women, Bemidji and BSU.
“She was an icon in our community,” Kringen said Thursday. “She was just larger than life.”
On her frequent trips, Helen would contact BSU alums in advance and meet them to keep them engaged with their alma mater.
Helen’s personality connected people, and kept them connected to Bemidji.
“She had a sense of humor,” Kringen said. “She was quick to smile and laugh.”
Helen also was a longtime member of the Bemidji Professional and Woman’s Club. Friends said she loved traveling and took trips to South America, Europe, Orient and Mexico.
“Helen meant a lot to all of us,” wrote Carol Ann Russell, a BSU English professor since 1988 and Rotary member, in an email for this article.
Shortly after arriving from Connecticut, Russell said, Helen invited her to lunch. The friendship grew over the years as the two discussed travels and poetry.
“Although it was subtle, Helen Gill was teaching me important lessons in fun, friendship, and timelessness,” Russell wrote. “I doubt that I would have written as many books or traveled internationally as much if I had not the fortunate influence and enthusiasm of this delightful, smart, and kind woman.”
Russell said Helen was a “grand lady of Bemidji, who sparkled with success in a man’s world.”