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  • Making a name for herself

    Madelyn Helling creates a legacy of giving back

    Karen Newell Young

    Nevada City Advocate


    When she was growing up in North Dakota, Madelyn Helling used books as her magic carpet ride. Those pre-Internet stories took her to big cities, exotic places and a home beyond her small-town roots.

    It was a long way from Bismarck to Nevada City. Eventually, she became something of a local folk hero, lending her name to our county libraries, as well as to the promotion of much of their history and educational efforts. 

    After she retired as county librarian in 1991, she spent much of her time volunteering for an assortment of nonprofits, including the League of Women Voters, Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, Nevada County Historical Society and the American Association of University Women. She still does.

    Now, she has time to read all the books she wants. Although her reading habits have always been the same, she says – lots of books and lots of community involvement.

    Her community involvement was recognized in grand fashion in 1991 when Nevada County’s new library was built at the same time as the Nevada County Government Center was being erected north of the city. The15,000-square-foot facility was dedicated on Oct. 20, 1991 – the last large building completed at the site. It was named the Madelyn Helling Library.

    But it all began with books. 

    “I found the Bismarck Public Library when I was young,” Helling said. “I went from A to Z, from children’s to adult sections. The local library developed my love of books. My mother said ‘you ought to be a librarian, you always have your nose in a book.’”

    She loved many kinds of books as a child, including those on travel.

    “I have all those wonderful memories of traveling when I was younger,” Helling said.

    She still remembers a quote she read in Reader’s Digest. “When you get old what you’ve got left are memories. “It’s up to you to build up good ones.’”

    Although she began a career with United Airlines in reservations, she eventually studied at UC Berkeley and went to work for the San Francisco Public Library as the administrative assistant. The small-town life drew her to a job for the Nevada County library in 1974, replacing Judith Schugren in the fall of 1974.

    “I wanted to live here for the job… it wasn’t far from San Francisco and it was charming and small,” Helling said. “I liked the whole tone of the town. It was new for Nevada County. It only became a county library system in 1972, and I was only the second librarian. Figured I could only go up from there.”

    Helling has received several Citizen of the Year Awards from the Nevada County Historical Society and Nevada County Board of Realtors. She volunteered for the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce for 20 years, earning the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce Kilroy Award.

    “I was so lucky to have served under a good board of supervisors,” Helling said. She credits former board member Skip Lusk (Nevada County architect) and Gene Albaugh (former Nevada County executive director) in helping the county fund and build the library. 

    The six-year construction process was completed in 1991. The late county manager Albaugh, said she waited so long for the library during its construction that she deserved to retire two years after her appointment as county librarian.

    Since moving away from San Francisco, she has always lived in Nevada City. Considering how active she has been as a community leader, Helling is fairly private. She never married and refuses to cite her age.

    “The problem with telling people your age, is that people make assumptions about you,” she said. “People may think I’ve slowed down. Not the case.”

    About the photo:  A sign on the Nevada County library honors Madelyn Helling, who was hired as the county librarian in 1974