Helen Witton Gjessing, scientist, professor, and environmental and community activist
Helen Witton Gjessing died on January 29, 2022 in Shelburne, Vermont. She is survived by her sons Erland (Jonathan) Gjessing and Eric Kirchoff, her daughter Catherine Gjessing, her brother David Witton and his wife Irene, her daughter-in-law Ilsa Kirchoff, and the extended family of James McCarthy, Bill and Jean Sioss, and Kathleen McCarthy and their siblings. and children. She is predeceased by her husband Frederick Cheney Gjessing and her son Craig Kirchoff. Helen Gjessing was born in Boston, Massachusetts on November 22, 1927 and spent most of her formative years in Concord, Massachusetts. Helen was a gifted athlete and played field hockey and basketball and swam competitively. Later, she learned to play tennis and played until she was 70. She participated in the school choir and retained a deep appreciation for music throughout her life, especially classical chamber music. Helen’s parents divorced when she was young, and her brother William was killed in the Battle of the Bulge when she was in high school. Helen claimed that she was not a good student and that the other members of the family were “geniuses”, but her enduring curiosity and intellectual commitment to science, the natural world, history, current affairs , politics, art and music were evident throughout his life. She earned a BS from Beloit College in 1950 and an MS in Biology from UMass in Amherst in 1952. After graduation, she worked as a laboratory research assistant in Boston, Massachusetts. On September 5, 1955, she married Frederick Gjessing in Glover Vermont. The couple moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then to St. Thomas USVI in 1958. After spending a year in Europe in 1961-62 so Fred could complete a Fulbright scholarship studying historic architecture, they returned to St.Thomas. They built a house and Helen began teaching biology part-time at the University of the Virgin Islands. Helen was an excellent cook, and she and Fred threw wonderful parties and meals with friends and family. They had strong family ties and ties to the Northeast Kingdom and vacationed in Glover, Vermont every summer. Helen eventually became a full professor and taught a number of courses, including genetics and microbiology. In addition to working full time, Helen raised 4 children and was a community and environmental activist. She has focused on promoting open government, protecting the environment and human health, and sustainable development. She was an active member of the League of Women Voters and the recipient of numerous awards including: the League of Women Voters Impact Award, the Environmental Rangers Earth Day Award and the first recipient of the Helen Gjessing Community Service Award. Though introverted, Helen had a great sense of humor and was an intelligent, tenacious, articulate and outspoken volunteer activist. She has been an inspiration to many young women, as well as men pursuing science and environmental activism. In 2014, Helen Gjessing moved to Vermont and settled at Wake Robin in Shelburne. Helen was loved and respected by all who knew her well and she will be missed. Special thanks to the staff at Wake Robin and the staff at Bayada Hospice.
A celebration of life will be held in Vermont at a later date and this summer at St. Thomas USVI.
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