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Evanston’s Beth Davis, former alderman of this City’s Third Ward, has taken on the considerable challenge of writing a biography of her mother, Helen Boosalis Davis, a most remarkable woman and leader.
Helen and her husband, Mike, were quite a remarkable pair. They grew up in Minneapolis but moved to Lincoln, Neb., the state capitol and home of the University of Nebraska, when Mike received an appointment as a professor of plant biology at the university.
Mike was an Army Air Corps bombardier during World War II who flew 50 missions in a B-24 over enemy territory in Europe – a signal accomplishment in its own right.
Helen was a trailblazer in many respects. She was elected to the Lincoln City Council four times – a Council that had traditionally been a haven for Lincoln businessmen. Ultimately, Helen ran for mayor of Lincoln and won two terms to that position.
Ms. Davis tells us that her source material for the early stages of her mother’s political career was a scrapbook that her father had faithfully kept of hundreds of news articles that he compiled as Helen’s career progressed.
Helen ultimately ran for the office of governor of Nebraska and, in a twist of no small irony for a state not noted for being extremely liberal, was opposed in that race by Kay Orr, a Republican who previously held the position of state treasurer.
Beth Davis, in this stage of her chronicle, becomes a very involved participant. She travels to Lincoln, and, living there for the most part during her mother’s gubernatorial race, becomes a direct observer of the facts that make up the most suspenseful sequence in this tableau – the question of whether Helen will succeed in her quest for the governorship.
Ms. Davis’s description of the race is intriguing, as the opponents engage in an epic battle. She utilizes an unusual but very effective and engaging technique of interspersing throughout the book what she describes as “flashes forward” that home in on the particulars of the gubernatorial race, making it the dramatic focal point of the story.
Much of the story is contained in numerous flashbacks, allowing the reader not only to partake of the drama of the larger contest but learning of the events leading up to it at the same time.
Another quirk of the story is that two women are in on the chase, a fact that leads to frustration in the Boosalis camp as it detracts from the campaign’s desire to have Nebraskans focus on the relative strengths of the candidates and their positions rather than their gender.
One of the eventual fault lines in the race is a major speech that Helen gives, suggesting a reordering of taxation levels in Nebraska among income taxes, sales taxes and other traditional state-based taxes.
Ms. Orr seizes on this speech and mischaracterizes it, suggesting that it was a proposal of across-the-board tax increases when it really dealt with changing the proportionate reliance on each category of tax. Ms. Davis goes on to say that the Boosalis campaign struggled to find the key to rebut the Orr mischaracterization.
The reader comes away with the impression that this issue ended up being the difference-maker in a very tight race, one regrettably not won by the heroine of the story.
Happily, Helen’s loss is not the end of the story for this force of nature. Her spirit of service to her community continued through her post-gubernatorial race appointment to the board of trustees of the Lincoln Community Health Endowment Board, as well as to the rest of the country through her appointments as the chairman of the board of AARP, a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and as Chairman of the Arbor Day Foundation.
Helen’s story (and really the story of the author and all her family) concludes with Beth’s telling of her husband Max’s serious stroke in 1990 and his fight for survival.
Max does make it, with the constant support of Beth and her sister-in-law, Annie Davis. But once again Helen was a major player in this drama, too, dropping her myriad responsibilities and coming to Evanston to care for Beth’s and Max’s family and household while Beth did all she could to bring Max back.
It would be hard to find a more stirring story of an inspirational woman – much more so when told by a daughter so touched by her mother’s strength and grace.