Roy William Helfenbein, of Elba Township in Lapeer, Michigan, died July 6, 2021.
He was 102.
Roy was born Oct. 12, 1918, to Gottlieb H. and Frieda Schoenhals Helfenbein in Darrouzett, Texas. His family made their home in the close-knit Texas Panhandle town at the time when the Santa Fe railroad was being built. Roy was named for a banker in town who helped immigrants learn to read, and was raised on a farm, the second of six children, during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression era.
Roy grew up speaking “low German,” rounding up cattle with his family, and collecting tools and learning about machinery from his father and workers on the farm, one of the first in the area to switch from horse farming to tractors. His parents owned a store in the Darrouzett area. Later he began farming with a friend who had purchased combines and they followed the wheat harvest north from Texas, throughout Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.
While working construction in New Mexico, he met Shirley Hart while she was teaching on a Navajo reservation; they were wed Nov. 25, 1959 in Toledo, Ohio. The couple made their home in Farmington, New Mexico before moving to Michigan in 1962 and buying a 300-acre farm in Silverwood, Michigan. There Roy farmed and worked in manufacturing shops in North Branch and Vassar, while Shirley taught in North Branch Schools. They were members of the North Branch Pilgrim Holiness Church, which later became North Branch Wesleyan Church.
In 1967, Roy and his family lived on the campus of Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti while Shirley completed her teaching degree. He began working in Flint for Buick in 1968. That year they bought a home in what would become Burton, Michigan, where they became members of the Bentley Wesleyan Church. By 1972, they yearned for the country and moved to their 80-acre “Circle H” farm in Lapeer’s Elba Township, remaining active with the Bentley church for many years, where Roy drove a Sunday School bus and later ensured his grandchildren attended. They also hosted events such as a hayride and Halloween barn maze. Roy retired from Buick in the late 1980s.
Roy taught his sons farming and mechanical work from a young age. In 1999, he launched construction of a home on a corner of the family property, which the family built for his daughter. With his boundless energy and love for conversation, he was known in the community for his cowboy hats, overalls, memorable phrases, his love for family, and his legendary “I’m Roy W. Helfenbein” antics, which left his grandsons laughing “Grandpa’s the man.” He persevered through challenges without skipping a beat. Once it became clear he could no longer drive, Roy found other ways to get himself to Meijer or the bank, knowing he would meet friends or could count on family for a ride home.
After his original 1957 Chevy Bellaire was restored in 2009 for Roy and Shirley’s 50th anniversary party, Roy and son Dan became an annual fixture in Hadley’s July 4th parade. Along with son Roy T., he continued farming through his 90s and was actively involved in the lives of his daughter and all his grandchildren, often dropping by for visits and attending their events.
Roy and Shirley were members of the Flint Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. He insisted on paying for family and friends to attend the group’s annual Christmas dinner, where he loved singing “O Tannenbaum” (“Oh Christmas Tree”) and other German carols, and treating the table to raffle tickets.
Roy relished music ranging from gospel hymns to Johnny Cash and other radio favorites, and played the spoons when his children were young, along with the harmonica. In later days, he loved to sing hymns a cappella with his family, and encouraged family members to join hands to pray the Lord’s Prayer at gatherings, ending the prayer with the German phrase, “Hilf uns Gott alaff seid, amen“ (roughly translated, “Help us God be OK, amen“).
Roy was adamant about living in his own home until the last, and stayed in his Lapeer home with his wife and son Roy until his final day on earth, where he kept up to date on the lives of his family and friends through frequent gatherings, phone calls and letters.
Roy’s memory will be cherished by wife Shirley, his son Roy T. Helfenbein, daughter Elizabeth Lowe (David), and son Daniel G. Helfenbein; 5 beloved grandchildren, Rachel Mancuso, Jakob Lowe, Matthew Lowe, Hanna Helfenbein, and Abigale Helfenbein; and 2 great-grandchildren, Jackson and Bowie Mancuso, whom he adored, along with his cherished nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws, and friends. Roy was preceded in death by his parents, and all 5 siblings, George, Clarence, and Arthur Helfenbein, Mary Sims, and Helena Winters.
The family is planning a memorial gathering at 2 pm Saturday, Aug. 14, at the Elba Township Hall, 4717 Lippincott Rd, Lapeer, Michigan. All who knew Roy are invited to come out to honor his life and share a memory.
Contributions in memory of Roy may be made to the Flint chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 631 D St., Lincoln, NE 68502, or https://www.ahsgr.org/donations/donate.asp?id=13550