The Liberty Gazette
November 14, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Helen Elizabeth Burgner Douglas Hart was the only child of a newspaper owner. She had a pony and a cart and could be seen trotting about Charleston, Illinois, circa 1900. Helen was educated at Wellesley College, a classmate of Soong Mei-ling, who became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, First Lady of the Republic of China.
But that’s about enough of the things Helen probably wouldn’t care if you never knew. Helen was so full of life and love that her giving meant far more to her than how gifted she was.
She moved to nearby Mattoon and married Clarence Douglas, an attorney and judge, and then Maurice Hart, whose death made her a widow for the second time. Establishing the Douglas-Hart Foundation, Helen built an art gallery, a cultural center, Friendship Park and a nature preserve, all for the benefit of everyone in Mattoon.
Helen supported local businesses, but she was also well traveled. Before their trip to The Hague at the end of WWII, she and Clarence stopped by my grandparents’ house and asked my mother and her sister if they would each like to pick one of their pen pals for the Douglases to visit. My mom chose her pal, Reit Lambrechtse, a Danish girl with five younger siblings. Mom and Aunt Marge’s Girl Scout troop had sent care packages to a Girl Scout troop in war-torn Europe. Each kit assembled was intended for one girl and contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a washcloth, and soap. But the recipient scout troop had more members than the one Mom was in, and she and her friends learned from the Danish thank-you letter that the gifts were divided among the girls to be sure no one was left out. Reit got the comb my mom sent. Her thank-you note expressed gratitude from all six Lambrechtse children, who were very happy they could now comb their hair. One comb—for six grateful children in a family trying to make it through the tragedies of war.
When Helen and Clarence visited the Lambreschste family, they were so impressed with the children they offered to sponsor every one of them who wanted to come to the U.S. Eventually, five of the six emigrated to start a new life. Reit stayed to take care of her parents.
Helen passed away in 1991, but from her vision flow the peace and beauty of Shakespearean gardens at Friendship Park; from her compassion Lambrechtse descendants enjoy freedom. But that only gives you the tiniest peek into Helen’s life. I wouldn’t want you to get the impression she was too humble and peaceful to be exciting. Helen was a renaissance woman, ready to take on the world and the next adventure right around the corner. She never stuck her nose in the air except when she was flying. The first female aircraft owner and licensed pilot in Coles County, Illinois, just made the world a better place.