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Last modified: Monday, April 30, 2007

At 100, Helen still helping her students

Bloomington Herald-Times

At 100, Helen still helping her students

by Andy Graham
April 29, 2007

The man on the other end of the phone thought there must be some mistake.

Charles Webb remembers the call he got about 15 years ago, when he was dean of Indiana University's School of Music. The dean of faculties office was calling and they were checking some facts and figures.

"The man said to me, 'There must be an error, because this list is showing an 85-year-old staffer at the school of music listed as working full-time and getting full-time benefits,'" Webb recalled earlier this month. "I replied, 'Could you, by chance, be speaking of Helen Clouse?' "

Yes, that was who the man meant.

Webb offered to introduce the man to Helen and her work, which involved arranging practice rooms for music students. "He came over, met her, saw what she did and how she interacted with students, and he was amazed," Webb said.

"The upshot is that the man has since passed away, and Helen is still working."

Indeed she is, and she turns 100 this Tuesday.

Walk into Helen Clouse's current, cozy office at IU's Music Practice Building and you might, with willpower, resist the bountiful supply of chocolate candies in the bowl on her desk. You will not, however, be able to resist Helen.

Mrs. Clouse, as she's known to thousands of music students who've grown to revere her the past 48 years, remains completely charming.

"Helen is wonderful, and always had been sympathetic and understanding of the students' needs," said Webb, himself an IU doctoral student when Clouse's career at the school began in 1960. "She became an absolute favorite of theirs. Now, she gets literally hundreds of Christmas cards every year from people all over world.

"She not only provided practice room arrangements and supervision, she was a mother confessor, a counselor, a person who functioned as a surrogate parent for kids away from home. She always has a ready supply of Kleenex, stamps, aspirin, candy and, if solicited, advice. And she has a very sympathetic and listening ear."

That hasn't changed. Start a conversation with Helen, and she'll let you talk a spell.

"I discovered quite early on that students will generally solve their own problems if you really let them talk it out," she said. "These students are intelligent people. Some maybe haven't totally 'arrived' yet, but maybe you can help them get there, and that's both a pleasure and a privilege.

"You let them talk, you loan them money, buy them new tires for their cars, buy shoes for their feet if you have to. It didn't make any difference to me how we helped, so long as we could help."

Helen smiled softly, then added: "Living is a sharing experience."

Among the many things Helen has shared is a luncheon for the entire music school every Christmas season.

"Every year, Helen prepared a fabulous buffet," Webb said. "It was staged in what was called and then formally named the Clouse Lounge, the link between the round annex building and the main school of music building, which is where her desk was for years.

"She'd have part of it catered, and her grandson (Chuck Aikman of IU's University Information Technology Services) is an excellent chef who would help cook a good part of it, and it would go on for three hours around lunchtime on some date leading up toward Christmas. And she funded it all herself."

Helen credits her husband, Arthur Clouse, the Navy captain who joined IU's chemistry faculty in 1960.

"Mr. Clouse's father was a Spanish-American war veteran who was killed, so my husband came from a family that had led a pretty sparse life," Helen said. "And he said, as long as he could do something about it, no one was going home hungry at Christmas time."

Last year's banquet was a celebration in conjunction with professor Menahem Pressler's 80th birthday, drawing students of his from across the globe.

Students are already gathering to celebrate Helen's centennial.

Monique Mead, married to fellow IU alum and Pittsburgh Symphony concertmaster Andres Cardenes, had come all the way from Pennsylvania to stop by Helen's office during our April 19 interview.

"I'm just here to visit Mrs. Clouse for her birthday," Mead said. "She held my hand all the way through my time here at IU."

Webb noted that even as Helen found time for some hand-holding, her IU duties were demanding.

"It's a very important and quite complex assignment she's had," Webb said. "We have many different practice rooms and many different types of music majors, with differing needs. Some need more time, some need a certain room with a certain type of piano."

Helen dismisses notions of difficulty. "Anybody can assign practice times," she said. "What you really need to be able to do is get along with the students, and each one is different.

"Students these days are much more sophisticated. Many of them have traveled extensively. But you still have to talk to them to discern what their needs may be, because they still have needs."

Helen works 16 hours a week now, leaving many duties in the capable hands of assistant Benny Clark. She intends to formally retire July 1 and get some writing done.

"You can't be happy unless you're contributing something, I don't think," she said. "You can't just take a seat in the corner and sit life out.

"My health is not too good. I'm pretty crippled up with arthritis. But there has never been a day I didn't want to come into work."