A farewell tribute to the “heart” of Crested Butte’s school
Connie Helland’s official job description sounded daunting enough: managing the school office, records, budgets and security systems. But it’s the unofficial roles Connie adopted so masterfully that stirred people to fond laughter and sentimental tears as they bid her farewell.
Connie retired last week after 24 years at the frontlines of the Crested Butte Community School (CBCS), and her fans—students, staff, parents and alumni—paid tribute to her many sub-professions:
Dental specialist. A generation of tiny Buttians relied on Connie for tooth extraction. “She’s pulled hundreds… maybe thousands,” said school counselor Jennifer Read. Many a dangly-toothed youngster rejected parental help in favor of the “professional.” “I’ve had parents hunt me down on July 4th to pull their child’s tooth,” Connie said. She once overheard a girl inform her friend (with awe but not accuracy) that Connie had been a dentist before entering office management.
Prankster. Former seniors still tell the tale of being “punked” by Connie and Jennifer, who convinced them they had to take a grueling, four-hour state aptitude test in order to graduate. Early that morning, the bleary-eyed seniors dragged themselves, moaning and groaning, onto a bus bound for the testing site. Instead, the bus stopped at Paradise Café, where Connie and Jennifer greeted the almost-graduates with a giant banner and celebratory breakfast.
Such stories are legion. Every year the mischievous duo pulled an April Fools joke on principal Stephanie Niemi. One April First, they put “Happy birthday, Ms. Niemi” on the school marquee, so a confused Stephanie, half a year removed from her winter birthday, received gifts and greetings from students and parents and a giant floral bouquet from the PTSA (whose members had seen the sign and scrambled into action).
Mother hen. Perhaps most valued was Connie’s perception and concern about each student’s well being. A tearful child approaching her desk saying, “I think my arm is broken,” might need a trip to the doctor—or perhaps just a hug and some comfort time. A teen with a “stomachache” might need Pepto Bismol, or breakfast, or a talk with a counselor for something more troubling.
Emma Vosburg, now 23, remembers, “Connie was my second mom in kindergarten when I had trouble saying goodbye to my mama. I would fake being sick so I could go visit Connie in the office. I would sit on her lap, and she would wipe away my tears while reassuring me everything would be okay. She called me ‘Miss Em.’ She still does.”
Connie slipped in countless thoughtful gestures: a note of encouragement for a staff member or an alternative treat for a child who couldn’t eat the cupcakes brought in for a class party. Her care “transcended all ages”—from little ones to punk high schoolers, said assistant principal Bob Piccaro. “Nobody was too cool for Connie.”
Founder of traditions. For years, Crested Butte’s older students attended Gunnison High School or the private Crested Butte Academy. When grades 9 through 12 returned to the Community School, Connie wanted the students to enjoy a full high school experience. So she spearheaded the creation of the junior-senior prom and many of the now-beloved graduation traditions, like the senior dinner, photo posters of each grad and senior video. “I’m so sentimental, I wanted a meaningful graduation people would remember,” she said.
Entertainer. “Connie’s not the shy, quiet person that some might think,” Bob Piccaro noted. Over the years in the school talent show, Connie and fellow staffers have performed such acts as Boot Scootin’ Boogie, Grease, Teachers Got Talent and The Eighties on Rollerskates, in which Connie attempted to moon walk on skates to Michael Jackson hits.
Her three sons rolled their eyes at her Halloween costumes, Connie said with a laugh, especially the year she performed her office duties dressed as Saturday Night Live’s Arianna, the Spartans cheerleader. “I don’t think Peter ever forgave me for that one.”
Sleuth. Connie has also attempted to foil various student hijinks. One night, suspecting the seniors were plotting some mischief, she and Jennifer hauled their sleeping bags and chick flicks into the school for all-night guard duty. They periodically patrolled the building, slinking against walls, darting across doorways and peeking around corners to catch any young intruders. “But really we just surprised the police, who were also trying to bust the prank,” Jennifer recounted. The prank came weeks later, according to Connie. “We totally missed it.”
They also staked out a haunted hotel with teacher Charlotte Camp while chaperoning a student trip to the U.K. “We make terrible spies; we laugh too much,” Charlotte said. “Connie always has people laughing.”
Connie’s own school life was disjointed as a youngster, since her father was in military service and the family moved often. They settled in Ohio, where she attended Ohio University (sister college to Kent State) during the “sad and confusing” Vietnam era. After a brief stint in New York City (not a good fit), Connie found a home in Crested Butte in 1975 after visiting friends here.
For years Connie worked for Bill Allen and Dick Eflin at the Artichoke, waitressing, bookkeeping and then managing at the après-ski hotspot. Crested Butte was “a quiet little fantasy town,” she said. In the winters, with no sidewalk plowing, business owners dug tunnels through the snow to their front doors. Summers meant Gemini parties and community potlucks, with meat from the hunters and vegetables from the gardeners.
Connie met and married Michael Helland, a builder and fire department volunteer who became an architect and fire chief. As they raised their sons, Jesse, Cam and Peter, Connie did bookkeeping for Red Lady Realty and waited tables at Le Bosquet. When their sons began ski racing, she and Michael helped with the Crested Butte Ski Club, and she organized the group’s massive ski swap for a dozen years.
In 1990, Connie took the office job at the Crested Butte Community School (housed in what is now Town Hall), so her schedule would match her kids’. Teachers Carol Kastning, Cathy Sporcich, Nettie Kapushion, Nancy Vogel and Melissa Leftwich took her under their wings. At the time, Crested Butte had only a part-time principal, so often Connie was the only person in the office. “That’s why I started feeling like I was the boss,” she said, smiling. The building had one phone (on her desk) and bathrooms in the basement. Food was prepared in Gunnison and delivered to a room in the basement, where Connie marked on a piece of paper which kids ate school lunch. Reports were all done by hand.
Connie might not have been the official “boss,” but she became the face of the school, and then its heart. Her 24-year tenure spanned four principals and several building configurations, including classes in the old Depot; the current marshals’ building; and some leaky “modulars” prone to falling ceiling tiles.
She shepherded the school as it moved into its current building, reclaimed the high school grades, grew in enrollment from around 100 to almost 700, and faced increasingly complex technology and security protocols. “Connie was the glue that held the school together,” Charlotte said.
Connie helped staff and students face tragedy, when over the years the school lost two students and a teacher—”terrible things to happen in our small school,” she said.
While some aspects of her job grew more sophisticated, others did not: e.g., rescuing a girl’s precious bracelet from a (used) toilet, inadvertently locking herself on the roof while searching for a custodian, and helping the fourth-graders cope when Eddie the hamster met his accidental demise while a substitute was on duty the day before spring break. (Eddie discreetly lay in state in a well-sealed box in the freezer until teacher and students could give him a proper funeral after the break.) Through it all, Charlotte said, Connie remained “sweet, funny, vivacious, positive, thoughtful, sincere and adventurous.”
Over the years, Connie learned to appreciate teamwork (“That’s what makes our school great”) and the rich dynamic that comes from differences in backgrounds, cultures and ways of learning. “Kids can be successful if you find their learning styles and zero in on their passion,” she said. One of her joys has been seeing Crested Butte’s young people thrive, in school or years afterward—”especially if you’ve seen them struggle or be unhappy. I’m really proud of our kids.”
Her job also deepened her patience and compassion. “Everybody who walks into the school has a story,” she said. “You have to know someone’s story to really understand.”
By necessity, Connie said, she also learned to laugh at herself. Like the time she announced over the PA system that payments were due for the low-cost ski passes for students taking a drug-free pledge. Somehow the words came out, “You must bring in your drug money tomorrow,” to which laughter echoed down the hallway—and past the visiting superintendent.
Connie regained her composure to end with her classic afternoon sign-off that so many are going to miss: “Be kind to each other, and see you mañana.”
With Connie’s retirement, the Hellands will move closer to their sons, daughter-in-law and grandson in Denver. In between family time and travels, Connie hopes to return often to Crested Butte, to ski, hike, see friends and perhaps visit the school.
“I’m going to miss the kids. And the teachers and staff; we know each other so well. And the unpredictability of each day,” she said.
Long after her departure, Connie’s influence will shape the school. As teacher Pat O’Neill said, “Connie’s positive impact at CBCS is profound… Connie made all of us better.”
Parent Jackie Velardi summed up many people’s feelings in a note about her long-time friend: “I’ve watched Connie grow into a woman of deep love and concern for our children, character, compassion, morals, faith, wisdom, humor and experience. She has walked the miles with an open heart to acquire these valuable assets and has freely given of them to CBCS. Our children have been the beneficiaries. How blessed our community is.”