Her Legacy: The Secret Life of Helen May Meade
Oct 01, 2019 06:28PM
by Diana Barrett for the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council | Illustrated by Libby VanderPloeg
Today, Helen May Meade would be considered City Hall’s chief of staff. For nearly 26 years, she coordinated the offices of seven mayors and 12 city managers. Upon her retirement in 1971, she was hailed as having “sat at the very epicenter of the city’s political vortex.” She never once lost her “sense of equilibrium” or gave the “slightest hint of a break of confidence,” even when her bosses were political enemies. Her title was “secretary.”
“Secretary” shares a linguistic root with “secret,” so Meade’s two children had little to say about her professional life. Her daughter Maureen was asked whether her mother had a favorite among the mayors she served, but could only respond, “I have no idea. She never talked about her work.” Yet Meade’s remarkable professional life offered her some help in juggling its duties with those of a recently widowed mother of two children. Maureen and Terry were delighted when police cars delivered their mother home after City Commission meetings and, especially, after entertaining visiting royalty, like Queen Juliana in 1952.
The ethics of Meade’s profession often mask success; however, her skills were extraordinary, and she seized the opportunity to overcome assumptions that her career involved doing only “what she was told.” During 26 years at the hub of city operations, she juggled the schedules of six commissioners and oversaw their capacity to handle high-profile issues; kept the wheels of government turning with the respect of 30-some department heads; and ensured smooth transitions during arrivals and departures in city government.
When Meade stepped into city employment in 1945 with 13 years of professional experience, her sophisticated skills were noted by Mayor George Welsh, a fascinating man who remains the most controversial political figure in Grand Rapids history. Meade’s first project with Welsh entailed spearheading a state-wide referendum to return more state-collected sales tax to cities.
Working for Welsh guaranteed both visionary projects and national contacts. During ensuing years, Meade came to be trusted in roles so various as hosting visiting vice presidents and representing the city on a cross-country collection of foodstuffs for post-WWII Europe. From 1963-1966 Meade was a consultant on municipal affairs to editor Z. Z. Lydens for an official city history. In 1970, she was named Secretary of the Year by the national association, begun in 1952 to encourage more women to enter a field once dominated by men.
Born in 1908, Helen May Feltman played an important role in the evolution from male secretaries to Victorian “angels in the office” to today’s mixed-sex office managers and “admins.” Only in 1969, near the end of her long career, were the duties she performed for both city manager and mayor finally divided. And it took two people to fill her shoes. During her retirement, she continued civic life on the city Historical Commission and hosted its 1976 bicentennial video. Meade died at 76 in 1984.
In 1949, immediately after Mayor George Welsh left on a prestigious international tour, recall papers were served on his secretary, Helen Meade. In her role as the city’s representative, she had earlier issued the permit for a mass meeting. Preceding this social disruption, Meade had developed a talent for juggling conflicting responsibilities while running the offices of both the long-time “strong mayor” and his rival city manager. When Welsh decided not to fight and cabled his resignation from Rome, Meade continued to serve both his supporters and detractors with unswerving integrity. Diana Barrett’s upcoming book will offer a fresh angle on whether the fight over an assessor position justified a recall move or was mostly a cover for a vicious attack.
The Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council
The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council is dedicated to educating the community and celebrating the legacies of local women, preserving knowledge of their past and inspiring visions for their future. For more information or to get involved, visit ggrwhc.org