‘She was one in a million’

Diana Helper was a 'tireless advocate' for parks, sustainability

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Diana Helper, a well-known community leader and passionate advocate for city parks who wrote for The Washington Park Profile for many years, died March 1 after a battle with liver cancer. She is survived by her husband, John, her son Stephen and several grandchildren. John and Diana’s daughter Katherine passed away in 2008.

Diana was 87 and moved to Denver in 1955.

She spent decades working to better the community in Denver. As a member of the Denver Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC), she worked on several committees, including parks and recreation.

“Diana worked so hard on many of INC’s committees and left a mark on them all,” said Maggie Price, co-chair of the Parks and Recreation committee, in an email. “She was one in a million.”

Helper also worked with her Registered Neighborhood Organization, the University Park Community Council (UPCC). Her pride and joy was helping create Prairie Park at 2551 Buchtel Blvd. South. The park, which preserves natural grasslands in the area, was designated in 2014.

“There was never a more dedicated advocate for neighborhoods and their myriad concerns,” said Steve Nissan, a past president of the INC, in an email. “Her efforts and contributions were always humble and selfless. Diana’s crowning moment was probably when the city dedicated the Historic Buchtel Boulevard Trail at Prairie Park.”

Helper fought for 38 years to convert the 14-acre long stretch into official park land. The area, which runs along Buchtel Boulevard in the University Park neighborhood, was first owned by a railroad company before being passed along to the Regional Transportation District, which then gave the land to the Denver City Council, according to the University Park Community Council website. A billboard gives more information on the history of the land at Prairie Park.

John Helper brought a bouquet of roses to the billboard and placed them there after Diana’s death.

Her mission: to find the good

George Mayl, president of the INC, said the organization is looking into dedicating a memorial bench to Helper, possibly one along Buchtel Boulevard.

Diana was naturally curious, and every morning as she read the paper, she would dig in to learn more about new developments that might impact her community, said her son Steve.

“Every day she would want to know. She would investigate,” he said. “She would be kind of a sleuth in some respects.”

It was never something she would have been interested in being paid for, he added. She was content to be on the sidelines of organizations instead of leading as president. Diana’s work with the city was something she did “lovingly, and willingly and determinedly,” Steve said. Aside from attending meetings, Steve added that it was Diana’s connection to people that made her a strong person, one who also sought to find the good in all things.

“She always looked for the good in everything, no matter what,” he said. “It was always trying to make things better and find the good. That was her mission.”

Although John frequently took Diana to meetings around the city, he didn’t participate in that side of her life. The two performed music together during their 64-year marriage. Their shared love of music was one of the first things the city girl from the Chicago area and the farmer from rural Illinois learned about each other when they met in January 1954. Their first date was to a senior dance at the University of Illinois.

“What I cherish about her was not only the music, but the feeling that went with it,” John said of their marriage.

Their birthdays were a day apart.

John supported Diana’s quest to better the city of Denver, just as she had spent years supporting him through a master’s degree and later a doctorate program at the University of Denver. Their “rock-solid” partnership was the glue that held them together, said Steve. He added that their mutual love of wit and humor brought joy to the family.

“There was a lot of wit and a lot of word play,” Steve said. “I think it’s a quality that certainly has been a part of their very successful marriage.”

A love of words

For more than 30 years, Helper has been a contributing writer to the Profile, writing the monthly column “Helper Here and Now.” Her columns also have run more recently in Life on Capitol Hill.

“I don’t remember a time before Diana Helper,” said Councilmember Paul Kashmann, who began working at the Profile shortly after it was founded in 1978. He took over as owner in 1983, the same year Helper began to write monthly columns for the paper. Her column, then called “University Park News and Views,” helped raise the profile of the neighborhood, Kashmann said.

In the past several months, Helper’s columns began to focus more on sustainability. Going green was her new passion project, and she participated in sustainability groups in the INC and UPCC. She also helped with community outreach on the topic at the United Methodist Church in University Park.

After Kashmann left the Profile and was elected to Denver City Council in 2015, he continued working with Helper, who he called a “tireless advocate” for city parks. Although she was passionate in fighting for what she believed in, Kashmann said Helper also was a great listener, even in her last weeks.

“She was as bright and on-point and energized as she ever has been,” he said. “She was a gentle person.”

“She was a steadfast, unique voice for her community. She had a love for words and puns and poetry and song. She was an integral part of a great project,” he added about Diana’s work at the Washington Park Profile.

A love of words was something Diana shared with her family. John and Steve began helping Diana go through her poetry collection while she was in hospice. It was something that helped the family focus on something other than her illness.

“You hear the phrase ‘unconditional love.’ That has substance to me now, it’s more than just the words,” John said. “I think it captures a lot of what we’ve experienced.”

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