Julie McDonald Commentary: St. Helens Club Fosters Friendships But Saying Goodbye Is Tough


Last weekend we said goodbye to yet another member of the St. Helens Club: Linda Ropka, a talented artist and gracious woman who passed away in Seattle May 28 at the age of 76.

At least 10 of the club’s members attended the memorial service Sunday at the Chehalis Seventh-Day Adventist Church, sitting side-by-side in two rows, sharing whispered memories, laughter and tears as we recalled time spent with Linda.

Not long ago, we lost another member, Corine Aiken, the vivacious, intelligent librarian who shepherded construction of the Vernetta Smith Chehalis Timberland Library. She died May 4 in Puyallup at 71 after battling cancer for three years.

When I joined the St. Helens Club in 2015, I knew only that early in the 20th century, the club raised money to restore the historic Jackson House, the log cabin on Highland Prairie south of Chehalis where John and Matilda Koontz Jackson raised their family. The St. Helens Club was formed in 1895 to “promote the interest of members in literature, art, science, and the vital issues of the day.” Needless to say, the issues of the day have changed in the past 126 years.

I quickly learned the club provides a gathering place where women give hour-long lectures on topics assigned by a Lecture Committee, where members learn from one another and work together on committees to host luncheons, develop the next year’s lecture series, or collaborate on reviewing scholarship applications. On the Social Committee, while washing dishes after luncheons, I bonded with Virginia Lintott and Robin Chadwick. Chadwick, a well-known local piano teacher, later moved to California and passed away March 9, 2020.

As chair of the Lecture Committee, Linda gathered members in her room at Sharon Care Center where she was recovering from surgery. We brainstormed topics and later put together booklets outlining the lectures for the upcoming year. Linda painted the art for the booklet covers and Patti Luger developed creative skits. For one skit, the ever-artistic Linda even persuaded me to wear a tiara as the Dogmatic Dowager seated beside her (also in a tiara) as the Dollar Duchess. The following year, we dressed as early 20th century journalists to kick off a lecture series on famous news headlines. She even persuaded me to wear a cap, which she kindly provided.

At Sunday’s service, family members and friends recounted cherished stories of Linda, whose passion for painting began when she was a child. Linda’s father used to warn visitors not to stand still or she’d paint them, her sister Jacquelyn said. An accomplished artist, Linda taught watercolor painting to many students, including her four grandchildren. When a fire devastated the community of Paradise, California, Linda donated two paintings to a silent auction hosted by Jeremy’s Farm to Table to raise money for survivors.

Vicki Pogorelc of Centralia said she and Linda both joined the St. Helens Club in the early 1990s.

“Linda gave the most amazing speeches,” she said.

“I asked her one time, ‘how do you do this?’ She goes, ‘Oh, you’ve got to have a shtick.’ The speech that was most memorable for me was her Georgia O’Keefe talk because she dressed as Georgia O’Keefe and she gave her speech like she was Georgia O’Keefe. She was memorable, witty, and fun. And we’ll all miss her.”

I’m blessed to have met Linda and many other wonderful women through the St. Helens Club. These friendships enrich my life in so many ways, and Linda definitely pulled me out of my hatless comfort zone when I wore a tiara and a cap.

Linda and her husband, Dr. Mark Ropka, had been married 53 years. They had two sons, Michael and Benjamin, and lived in Chehalis 45 years. Linda enjoyed cooking, sailing and traveling, according to her obituary. People described her as direct, loving, interested in others and devoted to God. One man said she received several marriage proposals during Maranatha mission trips.

When he thanked people for attending the service, Dr. Ropka said as a young man he prayed that the Lord would lead him to a wife, “and I don’t think he could have done better.”

“People sometimes asked me if it was love at first sight, and I said ‘I don’t know. The first few minutes, I was in such stunned condition that I was numb.’ But from that point on, it has been love at all sights. Trust the Lord for everything.”


Senior Centers

I’m glad to see the nonprofit Lewis County Seniors have developed a plan for reopening the six local senior centers. According to the phased-in plan, opening for socialization is tentatively set to begin June 21—initially only one day a week. Lunches may return to the centers in July with all the centers fully reopened by Aug. 2.

I enjoyed meeting Winlock seniors last week during their weekly 10 a.m. meeting at the Rowdy Rooster. They shared what the centers mean to them, especially the interaction with one another and the site manager. They noted their counterparts in Toledo meet at 10 a.m. Tuesdays at Donna’s Place.

The nonprofit Mason County Senior Activities Association partially reopened its center in Shelton March 1—allowing seniors to gather from 8 a.m. to noon Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This month they opened from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and 8 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays. They opened slowly, and most members are vaccinated. The center isn’t serving meals yet but plans to do so before long.

“Hopefully, your local senior center will open soon,” said Penny Wilson, bookkeeper, data coordinator and newsletter publisher.

“Senior centers are so incredibly important for the mental and physical health of all seniors.” 


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.