Helene “Leni” G. McCollor, 84, of North Yarmouth, Maine left this world with the grace with which she lived her life on August 7, 2019. Born on April 12, 1935 in Dittelsheim, Germany, the first child of Jakob Geil and Anna (Edling) Geil in her Grandmother Geil’s home, Leni proved quickly to be a gifted artist. As her sister Anna remembered, the teacher in the one-room school hung Leni’s drawings all over the walls for so long they were brown with age when Anna attended school four years later.
In 1943, her dear mother passed away at the age of 28, and Leni was left to raise her brothers Heinz and Jakob, and her sister Anna. Her father was allowed to return from driving trucks in the German Heer (Army). He quickly married a war widow to care for the house and children. Leni’s stepmother was verbally and physically abusive to her, and Leni began working at the age of 8 for a kind, if slightly wacky older neighbor. The neighbor gave Leni her own bedroom, a first. In the summer Leni worked in the fields, as did most of the village. Leni planned to use her earnings to buy a winter coat because she had not had one for several winters. For some unfathomable reason, her stepmother did not agree with Leni’s plan. Leni spent another winter without a coat. The war ended in her region of the Rheinhesse (wine country extending eastward from the Rhein River) in 1945. Dittelsheim was in the French Region of the Allie-divided country. The soldiers were as generous as they could be, but the townspeople starved. As is done in war, their cows had been shot, their fields decimated during the war from Allied planes emptying ammunition in order to save gas. Leni’s family could not afford to send her to Gymnasium (middle and high school) in Worms, so her formal education ended at fourteen.
By the age of twenty-five, Leni worked as a nanny for a colonel in the American army. The colonel offered to sponsor Leni to come to the United States. She accepted the offer eagerly. By now her family had grown to eleven children, and Leni feared she would be asked to care for all her brothers and sisters because her stepmother had recently passed away. Leni’s beloved sister Anna was already in the United States, having married a GI from the Bangor, Maine region. After a short visit with her sister, Leni went to New Orleans to work in a factory owned by her sponsor. Even though she knew no one, she spent two happy years, working and learning English at night at Tulane University.
Sister Anna was pregnant with twin girls in Wallingford, Connecticut and already had two sons. Leni decided to move to CT to help her sister. She obtained a job and took a night class in French. The teacher, Edward Elton Bean from Cumberland, Maine, would eventually become her husband. Ed and Leni were married February 27, 1965. A Bowdoin College and McGill University graduate, Ed won a Fulbright scholarship to study French Literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. Their first child, Annemarie, was born there. Leni did not have women friends to consult, so she bought the 1957 version of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care and followed the book religiously. Back in the US, Ed taught in the French Department at University of Maine in Orono and Leni gave birth to their second child, Karl Friedrich Bean. Another move was in the works: Ed was accepted in the French and Francophone Studies at Duke University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Leni was happy to be moving back to the South as she was not a fan of Maine winters.
The family thrived in Raleigh. The children began school and Leni worked at Bell South part-time. When the children were older, she often told a story about the seating in the cafeteria. At one large, round table, she and the first African-American to be hired at that Bell South facility sat together and no one else sat with them, the foreigner and the black man.
In July 1972, her husband Ed, despondent because he did not receive a teaching contract at North Carolina State University and because his first draft of his dissertation was due on September 1st, hung himself in his NCSU office. Leni found him. Annemarie was six and Karl, 5. Her decision was to move back to Ed’s hometown, Cumberland, Maine so she could take care of Ed’s grave and be near him. She moved in with her in-laws, George and Mary Bean, for six months while she battled with Ed’s life insurance company regarding Ed’s manner of death and whether or not it was work-stress related. Finally, administrators at NCSU were able to influence the company and Leni received enough money to buy a little house on Greely Road.
The children continued school in the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school system, at times attending in the same building where Ed went to school and where George, his father, was a janitor. Leni obtained a job key-punching full-time on the second shift, which meant she saw her children early in the morning and for one hour in the afternoon. Then she was introduced to Wendell “Mac” McCollor, an industrial arts teacher at Lyman Moore Junior High School in Portland. They married on November 30, 1974.
Marrying Mac added three children to the now McCollor family: Kim, Jerry, and Becky McCollor. Leni knew it would be difficult to care for what we now know as a blended-family. Her method often relied on good food. Leni was an excellent, improvisational cook, learned no doubt from her years of cooking as a child with little food.
In 1986, Karl joined the US Marine Corp and Annemarie spent a college semester in Kenya, East Africa. She only spoke with them occasionally. To move from being a close, caring mother to a mother who had little contact with her children was very difficult. She channeled her worry into her ownership of an herb shop on Main Street in Yarmouth. Many of the dried herbs had been grown by Leni. She spent hours making decorative wreaths and arrangements, losing the lines on her right thumb from glue gun catastrophes.
After graduating college, Annemarie is accepted into a master’s program in the Department of Theater at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Since she had never seen most of America, Leni decided to join Annemarie on her trip across the country in August in a car with no air conditioning. When the trip was completed, Leni and Annemarie cried an entire day together because Los Angeles was an unknown planet to both of them.
Meanwhile, back in Maine and out of the Marines, Karl began studies at the University of Maine. Leni was glad to be near him because Karl was going through some rough times with his addiction to alcohol. On October 6, 1993, her dear, lovely son took his own life on campus at UMO. Leni was literally heart-broken; she also said she felt relief because she knew Karl was safe for the first time in years.
What lightened her life was her grandchildren. Mac’s daughter Kim now had two children, Kathryn and Peter. Jerry had one child, Malcolm. And Becky had one child, Brooke and then another, Tyler. A late starter, Annemarie gave birth to Elsa and Tobias in the early 2000s.
In the 2000s, Leni gave up her herb shop and began working at a day care center. She loved working with the babies and toddlers and prided herself on her mysterious ability to put any baby or toddler asleep. Despite having many jobs over the years, this position was by far Leni’s favorite job in her entire life. She also was able to celebrate Annemarie’s achievement of earning a PhD in Performance Studies at New York University.
Around 2012, Leni showed signs of dementia. She hated not remembering where she put her keys or purse, and she would get angry at herself. Mac had built the house they lived in; however, it became clear in 2017 they needed to move to assisted living. The place they found, Bay Square in Yarmouth, provided Leni and Mac a safe space, and the amazing administration and staff were outstanding in every way. As Leni’s dementia increased, the Bay Square staff adapted seamlessly as did her wonderful private caregiver, Kathie McGonagle. She was happy for visits, especially when the visitor was a close friend, such as John Carpenter and Ken Blanchard, and anyone in her sister’s family, especially her sister Anna, niece Leni and her children Alena and Leandra and niece Lita with her children, Nic and Makayla.
The dementia in no way diminished the caregiver in Leni. She kept food from her meals to “feed the children” and she kept piling clothes to give to her son Karl. Eventually, breath became difficult and then impossible. Surrounded by family, Leni passed on to be with her son Karl, her parents, sister Claudia and her God.
A Graveside Service will be held at the Moss Side Cemetery, Main Street, Cumberland Center at 3PM on Wednesday August 14, 2019 A Celebration of Life will follow at the Cumberland Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, 282 Main Street, Cumberland, ME at 4PM. Expressions of sympathy may be made in the form of donations to the Alzheimer’s Association, http://bit.ly/LeniMcCollor. To view Leni’s guestbook or leave the family an online condolence please visit, www.athutchins.com.