Feb. 1, 1923-Aug. 9, 2022
Helen Milligan Nielsen, known affectionately to her children as “The Queen,” passed away peacefully in Natchitoches Aug. 9, 2022, at the age of 99.
She is survived by beloved family members, her six children, Kenneth Nielsen (Susan), Patricia Lanning (Roy), Barbara Nielsen (Patrick Wallace), John Nielsen (Samar), Dale Nielsen (Simone) and Lori Terzi (Jameel “Jim”); sister, Beverly Jane Milligan Kupsky; 14 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, two sisters-in-law, and numerous nieces and nephews.
She was preceded in death by her loving husband, Charles “Chuck”; her brother, John Thomas “Jack” Milligan; and her parents, John Milligan and Helen “Nell” Myles Welsh LaBurn Milligan.
A gifted storyteller, she was born Helen Everett Milligan Feb. 1, 1923, in Detroit, Mich., to Scottish immigrant parents. She grew up in a close extended family in the Brightmoor neighborhood, with her grandparents living next door and aunts, uncles and cousins on the same block. She shared memories of her grandparents waltzing up and down the hall of their home, of Saturday evenings singing along to a player piano and of Scottish traditions including shortbread at Christmas and the Hogmanay celebration on New Year’s Day. Her sister, Beverly, recalls Helen’s close relationship with her Grandma and Grandpa LaBurn. She was Grandpa LaBurn’s “little angel.”
Early on, Helen developed a love of books and writing and excelled at school. She was the Salutatorian at Redford High in Detroit. During a time when opportunities were limited for women, Helen went on to become an executive secretary at Guardian Life Insurance and Detroit Diesel, working in some of the most beautiful buildings in vibrant pre-war Detroit. Her favorite was The Guardian, now a National Historic Landmark. She loved riding the streetcar to work, the bustle of city life and dancing to big band music at clubs and dance halls.
She met her future husband, Chuck, at a dance in Detroit. They kept in touch through letters after WWII broke out and Chuck joined the Army Air Corps, where he co-piloted missions over the hump in China. They married after the war and Chuck went on to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota. After his graduation, they moved to Michigan and then New Orleans, where Chuck pursued a career in the space program, working on missions from Apollo 1 through the Space Shuttle. In New Orleans Helen and the family adapted to and embraced Creole and Cajun food, the Jazz Festival and Mardi Gras and delighted in sharing the city and its culture with visiting relatives.
Family ties were important to both Helen and Chuck, and their home served as a hub for celebrations and gatherings as the family grew. They reveled in their six children, their spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and made frequent trips to visit extended family. They traveled to 49 states (missing only Idaho), most Canadian provinces, England, Scotland, Mexico and Costa Rica.
Despite the demands of a busy household, Helen remained an avid reader throughout her life. Her son John remembers that, as a small child, he noticed she would pick up a book any time she had a spare moment—a habit that piqued his curiosity about learning to read. She also enjoyed her bridge clubs, birding and gardening. Her daughter Lori recalls her growing vegetables and fussing over her African violets. Friends and family lovingly remember her as warm, kind and wise, always ready with a story and empathetic advice. She loved a good laugh, made friends easily and delighted in the happy commotion of a big family. She also never lost her secretarial skills, jotting Christmas lists in shorthand to keep her kids from reading them.
Helen and Chuck moved to Natchitoches in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina heavily damaged their home, choosing a community out of hurricane range where their son Dale and his family lived. Chuck passed away later that year. Even as Helen’s mobility shrank in her 90s, and she outlived most of her friends , her mind remained sharp. Activities like gardening and travel fell by the wayside, but she continued to enjoy reading, crossword puzzles, family visits and phone calls and couldn’t be beat at Jeopardy. She will be remembered with love and gratitude by all who were fortunate to know her.