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Helen Karpinski
Pioneer for Women in Politics

Helen Karpinski turned 102 years old on October 7, 2001. It is hard to imagine her as a younger woman; her presence is so strong at this age. Then, as now, she must have been described as lovingly powerful.

Helen is one of thirteen children. She grew up surrounded by family and extended family. When she married, sisters and brothers and mother lived down the street, across the street or close by. There was no reason to lock doors, a sister or brother may want to come in and check on you or your children!

It was a time when you knew your neighbors and walked up and down the streets greeting everyone. People looked out for each other and genuinely cared for each other. This was the message Helen took with her into her adult life; a message that served her very well.

Helen's family life is very important to her. With all of her accomplishments, she is understandably most proud of her three daughters, two grandsons and one great-grandson.

Her late husband, John Karpinski, was the Amateur Welter-Weight Champion of the World. Helen readily admits that without his help and support she could never have gotten as far as she did in the world of politics, or any of her other accomplishments. Although the war cancelled his Olympic aspirations, John Karpinksi not only claimed the World Title, but also had the distinct honor of being able to shadowbox with the King of Denmark!

The Karpinksi Women - Helen with daughters Mercedes, Diane and Gloria

The Karpinksi Women
Helen with daughters Mercedes, Diane and Gloria

Her children are: Gloria Joy Battisti, M.S.W., Mercedes Spotts, Esq., and Diane Karpinski, Judge in the 8th District, Ohio Court of Appeals.

Her grandson David Spotts is an attorney in Ashtabula; her grandson John is in Community Development for Cuyahoga County and is the father of Helen's great-grandson, David. Helen is always sure to take time out for Grandparents day and other "grandmotherly" activities.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Helen's family moved out of town for a short period. When she was fourteen years old she and her older sister Nell came back to Cleveland to find work. The two brave women stayed with cousins until the rest of the family was able to join them. Helen went to work in a clothing store.

At fourteen, it was not her first job, and far from her last. It was this same sister, Nell, who made the lovely dress she wore in a Beauty Pageant, when she was picked to win by none other than Rudolph Valentino!

Helen next went to work as a telephone operator for Ohio Bell and later at Wade Park Manor. It was here that she learned lessons of elocution and the importance of proper diction. Speaking clearly and carefully was another lesson Helen carried with her into her adult life.

It is certainly the world of politics that enticed Helen more than any other, and specifically the role of women in politics. The concept of women not being allowed or encouraged to do anything they wanted was completely foreign and utterly ridiculous to Helen.

Take for example her race for 1939 Cleveland City Council in the old 21st ward (88th and Superior). She was the first woman to run under a new City Charter that no longer elected women by mandate, but rather by option. She defeated the incumbent in the primary - a man who had previously been elected County Sheriff! Although she lost in the general election, her victory in the primary was historic, paving the way for women everywhere.

When Helen was President of the Federated Democratic Women of Ohio (1967) she again made history by announcing her intention to run a female for the position of Treasurer of the State of Ohio - Gertrude Donahey. With Helen as campaign chairman and with the full support of the federation and Helen's theory that if women can run the household finances they can certainly run the state's finances, Gertrude Donahey was elected as the first woman in an Ohio Administrative Office.

After a careful selection process, Helen went on to support numerous candidates. She demanded that they be honest, hard working, educated people with respect for themselves and others. It was, in fact, the same demands she made on herself.

She organized women in a number of groups and helped make their voices heard. She instructed them to go to their own local groups, clubs and association. "Stand up" she told them and say "I wish to speak for a candidate. Clearly say the name. Just say three sentences and sit down". Women who had never had the courage to speak in front of a group before were becoming empowered. Used to licking stamps and folding letters, they were now speaking their minds, thanks to the support of Helen Karpinski. Many of these women went on to run for school board and city council offices themselves.

People recognized Helen Karpinski's work and she was often honored with awards and tributes. In 1974 she received the Federated Democratic Woman of the Year Award. In 1988 she received the Cuyahoga Women's Political Caucus Political Achievement Award for encouraging and supporting women's participation in the political process.

In 1986 Helen received the WomenSpace Josephine Irwin Award with a resolution from the Ohio House of Representatives which read, in part, " You give clear evidence that one person can make a difference in our world and affect the loves of others in a very positive way."

Her 100th birthday party was like a political Who's Who with the likes of former Ohio Attorney General Anthony Celebreeze and Ohio Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick among those in attendance. Congressman Dennis Kucinich read into the Congressional Record of September 24, 1999 that Helen's work for women in politics has been "immeasurable".

As far back as the 1930's Helen chaired a committee of women ward leaders determined to oppose the sale of the Cleveland Municipal Light Plant. (Yes, that battle goes all the way back to the 30's!)

She was a member of local and State Democratic Executive Committees and even served on the Democratic National Committee. Often elected as a delegate to the Democratic national conventions she was invited to serve on the prestigious Credentials Committee in 1968.

And yet, with all of this, Helen's energies and interests were not limited to politics. She is deeply proud of her Polish-American roots and has been involved in a number of organizations promoting her heritage.

She received the Polonia Ward for her leadership in the Polish community. She helped to establish and maintain the Polish Gardens at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation, where she has always been very active. It was this work that prompted Cleveland Mayor Michael White to honor her in the City of Cleveland's first Flags of the World Day in 1997.

She was a special honoree at an Ohio Women's Hall of Fame program and her history was recorded by Cleveland State University in a project to preserve Ethnic Women's Oral History. She has been honored by the United States Government and the Baptists Minister's Association. She is a woman of tremendous depth and unlimited potential.

Helen is also very dedicated to her Church. She grew up in St. Thomas Aquinas Parrish and now lives in Our Lady of Peace where she is especially fond of the Pastor and participates in Mass weekly.

She went to Rome with her daughter, Gloria and was at a service and reception in which the current Pope, John Paul II, was elevated to Cardinal. (She was also invited to the White House when Jimmy Carter was President. The other guests included The Pope and Gregory Peck).

It would be next to impossible to list all of the organizations she formed, participated in, chaired or served on. It would definitely be impossible to list all of the people she helped or encouraged. There is no list long enough to describe the effect she has had on women in politics and in life in general. She is a friend to the "little guy" with self-described "lots of nerve."

She will encourage you, assist you and either celebrate or commiserate with you. What she will not do is compromise her principles, forget her friends or neglect her family.

She holds in her a lesson for all of us. "Educate yourself as much as you can - never stop learning" and then "Don't be afraid to meet people. I was never afraid of people. Talk to them, get to know them and then help them if you can."

Profiled by Debbie Hanson

NOTE: Helen Karpinski died in July, 2002. Her memory lives on in her children and her beloved Polish community

Don't miss the profiles of Helen's 3 daughters:

Gloria Joy Battisti, M.S.W.,

Mercedes Spotts, Esq.,

Diane Karpinski, Judge in the 8th District, Ohio Court of Appeals.

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