Some deaths come too soon and Helen Jean Medakovich’s was one of them. When she succumbed to lung cancer on October 11, 2000, she was not yet 61—and she was a young 60. It was not only that she was too young to die—it was that she was so unlikely a person to stop being alive. Being alive was what Helen Jean did best.
From the day Helen was born—November 12, 1939, in Omaha—she was surrounded by love and returned it full force. As the first grandchild in the family, she was center stage not only for Mac and Mamie, her parents, but for a doting circle of aunts, uncles, and grandparents. By the age of two Helen Jean had memorized all the family phone phone numbers and took to the phones, regularly negotiating long-distance chats with her grandparents. (This was in the days not only before automatic dialers but before dialers, period. You had to tell the operator both your number and the number you were calling.)
Helen was one of those people about whom it is said, “She knew no strangers.” Everyone was her friend, young and old. Within the family and at church, if she wasn’t talking with someone she was charming and entertaining them. She learned to read early and loved to recite; she took dance lessons and loved to perform. When her little brother Joe came along, they became a duet, but there was no question who was director.Joe, whom the family still calls “Punk,” had a boss at an early age. Dressed as cowgirl and cowboy, Helen Jean and Punk would sing Buttons and Bows (“East is east, and west is west....let’s go where the buckboard bounces....”) and other numbers from the Hit Parade. Her chief flaw as a child was that she was a poor eater. She just wasn’t hungry. “I don’t think she ate mashed potatoes until she was 13,” says Mamie Medakovich. Then at 13 she got an appetite—“‘Why didn’t you tell me, Mama, that they were so good?’ ”— and she just couldn’t get enough of them.
After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1957, Helen enrolled at Iowa University, where she joined a sorority and became a cheerleader. Mac, Mamie, and the rest of the family would go to games to watch her cheer and they would all go out to dinner afterwards. IU’s team made the Rose Bowl so Helen got to lead cheers in Pasadena one year.
Helen loved languages and to improve her Italian spent the summer after her freshman year in an Italian home with a retired accountant and his wife. At the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome she met Graziano Sarchielli, two years her senior, and began a lifelong love affair with Italy and Italians. Graziano and Helen were married in Omaha in 1960 in (I believe) the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.
For several years the couple lived in New York City, where Graziano worked as a journalist for the Italian newspaper, Il Giorno. After a stint at Lord & Taylor, Helen took a job with Al Italia, where her employee’s benefits included discounted flights for both of them. Helen’s family got postcards from Peru, the Galapagos Islands, Hong Kong, and points all around the world.
For several years, the couple divided their time between New York and their apartment in Rome near the Campo dei Fiori. Then Graziano found an abandoned nine-room farmhouse, centuries old, high in the Tuscan hills overlooking the Arno River valley south of Florence. With a loan from Mac and Mamie, they bought the farmhouse and the 62 acres that surrounded it for a down payment of five or six thousand dollars. In 1974 Helen moved to Italy and divided her time between Rome and Tuscany. That farmhouse—located in the Pratomagno foothills in the township of Loro Ciuffenna, near Valdarno—would become Helen’s life work.
Helen never took a traditional job in Italy but as one of Italy’s most knowledgeable and enthusiastic boosters she was in demand as a host and guide at various Italian film festivals and other cultural events. She had helped train museum tour guides in Verona but what you really wanted was to get Helen to be your personal guide. There was nothing better than seeing Italy with Helen, who instead of taking you to the obvious tourist spots would drive you to a remote medieval village so stony that it was impossible to bury the local dead in the earth—so the bodies of women had been thrown down one well and the bodies of men down another. The same day you might stop in an appliance store so Helen could show you how stunning the bathroom fixtures were and how poor a market Italy was for certain conveniences: the sign on the Italian clothes dryer boasted it would dry your blue jeans in only two hours! You would end your day in the private kitchen of Enzo, a man in another village who would cook Helen’s portion of a wild boar that some hunters had killed on her land, preceded by pasta with wild boar sauce. You did this whether you wanted to or not. Helen’s was not the lazy person’s tour of Italy.
After Helen and Graziano separated (amicably), she was determined to make a living from the farmhouse and olive groves. When she wasn’t figuring out how to get working plumbing in the farmhouse, she was restoring and learning how to manage the 2,200 olive trees that eventually grew on 45 beautiful terraced acres. She credited her eventual success with the olive groves to Lorenzo Salucci, an Italian farmer who worked on her groves from 1974 until his death 22 years later. It helped that the farm’s rocky soil, northern location and climate, and altitude--1,050 feet to 1,650 feet above sea level--were ideal for the production of olive oil. At that altitude and latitude she didn’t have to worry about insect predators; her only concerns were rain and freezing temperatures at harvest time and the occasional wild boar.
By 1998 she had finally restored the farmhouse well enough to be able to live there year round and to welcome guests. She had taken the steps necessary to get approved for ecotourism and hoped to make a living renting her farmhouse or rooms in it and selling the fine oil produced from her olive groves. Those who came expecting hardship in an “abandoned farmhouse” were amazed not only at how beautiful a home Helen had created but by the breathtaking view of the Arno valley below. At night, from the terrace, you could see the lights from several villages twinkling in the valley. The view inside the farmhouse was equally beautiful; Helen had an eye for beautiful antiques from the Tuscan countryside and truly knew how to put a room together.
Every January Helen flew to Council Bluffs to visit her family, especially her mother, Mamie, and her brother, Joe, who own and operate Corey-McKenzie, an office supply company in Omaha. (Mac had passed away.) Then Helen and Mamie would spend the month of February in Arizona and California with Mamie’s sister, Louise Marinovich, and niece, Jeanie McHargue.
The only sign that anything was different this year was when Helen decided she was too old to fly stand-by anymore and bought a regular plane ticket to Omaha. She returned to Italy with a persistent cough and a pain in her side that eventually was diagnosed as lung cancer. Her friend Dr. Susan Braddock, who was scheduled to visit Tuscany with Mamie, flew over to bring Helen home instead. She spent her last months in Omaha and Council Bluffs, surrounded by her loving family. Helen was stunned that she should develop such a terrible disease “just when everything was coming together” for her. With Linda Herzog of Catering Creations in Omaha, she had organized a cooking school in Tuscany that would include a visit to Helen’s olive groves and Helen’s remarkable tours. Helen lived long enough to hear that the cooking school was a great success, with Graziano taking over the tour guide role that Helen had promised to provide. She lived long enough to learn that the cooking school had been a success and for Graziano to return to Council Bluffs to bid her goodbye.
The only consolation her many friends and family could take from Helen’s early death was that if ever a person had fully lived every day of her life it was Helen. She had seen as much of the world as anyone could reasonably expect to see, she had turned an abandoned farmhouse into a comfortably elegant villa, and she had produced an olive oil that could compete with the best of them. But it was hard to believe she was gone, because when she was here she was so fully here, stubbornly refusing to fit the traditional mold and reminding us constantly that life was to be lived.
(written in 2000, and posted one day when memories of Helen were strong, happy, and sad all at once. Graziano Sarchielli died in February 2021.)