Helen McBee was born 1/10/1909 in Los Angeles, CA to John Calhoun and Margaret Chambers Thomas McBee. Her father served in Company B of the 16th Infantry and had spent most of the Philippines-American War in the islands where Helen’s brothers Paul Thomas (1905) and John Jr. (1907) were born. The family had recently moved to California and after Helen’s birth moved again to Bakersville. After traveling briefly with the family while her father pursued his law degree, they returned to Bakersville for the remainder of their lives.
Helen was a good student who graduated from Bakersville High School on 3/2/1925. She was a member of the Adelphian Society (later Alpha Delta Pi, the first secret society for women that forged the way for women in the fraternity system), Latin Club, and Debaters Club. She was on the women’s basketball and tennis teams, both of which had to play their games on dirt courts.
After graduation, Helen began the 1925 fall semester at the North Carolina College for Women (NCCW) which today is the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. There, students were encouraged to keep a scrapbook; Helen did so then and continued lifelong in one form or another. Fortunately, her scrapbook from 1924 to 1939 provides us with an intimate reminder of the very special life that she lived and enjoyed as a student which helped shape the teacher she would become when she returned to Bowman High School in 1929.
Throughout the scrapbook are programs from dozens of arts and cultural offerings at the school and at other schools in the area. Apparently, she never missed an opportunity to enjoy opera, art exhibits, plays, symphonies, lectures, and other cultural programs not available to her back home. These interests and experiences she carried back to the people of Mitchell County, especially her students.
During her academic career, she spent every Thanksgiving Day at NCCW, but in 1929 she wrote that she was at “The Bee Hive” in Bakersville. Halloweens likewise were spent at the school, often in the company of friends participating in such activities such as Tom Thumb’s Wedding with “the children included” in 1926. Again, in 1929, back home now as a teacher, she recounted spending part of the day in the class room, then attending 2 parties, one at which she “won an orange and black yo-yo for the most unique costume.” All Christmases however, were spent with her family “in the picturesque little town of Bakersville” often “beside a warm fire.”
During her freshman year, she was initiated into the Cornelian Literary Society, established in 1893 as one of the two original campus literary societies. This name honored Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi Twins of Roman legend. Their colors were blue and gold, and they had a goat as their mascot. Their motto was “For fellowship, knowledge, and culture.”
She was a member of the Spanish Club and on the Honor Roll during her junior year. During her senior year she created the McBee Lecture Bureau which apparently served the campus as a clearing house for speakers on such topics as teaching 9th grade math, directing plays, “The Modern Novel,” “The Creative Impulse,” and American architecture among others.
Pictures of herself and friends are found throughout the book, including one of her reading at a funeral for “poor Fritz” the cat, a picnic in California, a trip to Virginia Beach, and a trip to the Roan. Included is a detailed account of her trip to St. Petersburg, FL, and her speech given at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1932 as well as a flier from that trip for a movie she attended—Sinners in the Sun.
In 1934 she attended UNC Chapel Hill summer school and took two graduate courses in education. She passed one with the lowest possible grade and the other with an excellent rating; however, she attended 9 different cultural events there and at Duke University during the session.
Helen McBee was dedicated to her students, Bowman High School, her church, her community, local history, Mitchell County public libraries, and many cultural activities in Bakersville and Spruce Pine. She is remembered as a director of school dramatics, but she also directed plays with teachers as actors and others with members of the community. The latter included the 1956 Bakersville Centennial play, “A Place of Some Mark” which she also co-wrote.
Later in her life, she enjoyed participating in organized travel and was always enjoyed by fellow travelers who appreciated her knowledge of history and geography (often knowing more about the places than the guide), her sense of humor, her willingness to try new and different things encountered along the way, and her meticulous note taking.
In 1997, the Community Foundation of North Carolina awarded Helen McBee the Raymond A. Hust Leadership Award which honors local WNC philanthropists for their contributions to their communities. Her lasting investments include the Mitchell County Public Library, AMY Regional Library, The Mitchell County Historical Society, the Town of Bakersville, the Bakersville Community Health Center, and the First Baptist Church of Bakersville.
Her love for and devotion to UNC-G and Mitchell County students extends to the Helen McBee Scholarship and the Helen McBee Charitable Trust Scholarship which since 1995 have assisted over 400 UNC-G students, primarily from Mitchell County, to pursue their degrees.
Many of those who had Miss McBee for English or Spanish classes or who were chosen to be in the class drama productions she directed had no inkling of the caring, dedicated, and generous person some called “Granny McBee.” Hopefully, we may be forgiven for that ignorance and youthful arrogance; however, what she did to prepare many of us for further study and all of us for lives ahead now flows into memories of deep appreciation as we honor her with the gifts she gave to us.