Helen M. Meade, Secretary Extraordinaire
published: September 29th, 2008
In today’s political world Helen May Meade would probably have the title, Chief of Staff, but when she oversaw the city hall offices of 7 mayors (Stanley Davis and Paul Goebel twice) and 12 city managers (Frank Goebel and George Bean twice) for twenty-five years from 1945 to 1971 her title was secretary. With thirteen years of secretarial experience prior to her marriage, Helen Meade began her career with the City of Grand Rapids as a two-week vacation replacement in December of 1945. (Find more information to your right in Related Items)
Born Helen Feltman, as a young child she lived in the Grandville Ave. area, attended Hall St. School, graduated from Central High School, married David Meade in 1936, and by 1943 found herself widowed with a young daughter, Maureen, and expecting another child. During the war years there was a local housing shortage and she worked part-time with the Veterans Housing and Emergency Housing Committee. When her son, Terry, was two she went to work full-time as secretary to the Grand Rapids City Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals to support herself and her children.
Recognizing a good thing, Commissioner Joseph Kozak asked if she would be interested in a permanent position with the city. While working in the City Attorney's office, the secretary to Mayor George W. Welsh happened to be gone one day. Welsh telephoned Meade and dictated a letter over the phone. Because she appeared with a completed letter in a very short time, he decided she was needed in his office. She became secretary to the mayor in 1946. One of her first duties was to take the letter advocating the sharing of sales tax with local communities which resulted in the "Sales Tax Diversion Amendment" to the State Constitution for sharing revenues with schools and local governments.
A voluminous amount of official work was entailed when Mayor Welsh spearheaded a state-wide campaign to obtain a referendum for returning a portion of the state-collected sales tax to cities. However, Meade felt the success of the campaign was well worth the many extra hours of work it demanded. In 1947 Mayor Welsh became President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a national duty which made the work in the office more exciting because of the many official contacts through-out the country. She took minutes in the evening for the City Commission meetings and afterward would be sent home in a police car, which her children found quite exciting. In the late 1940s, during the coal shortage in Grand Rapids, Meade also took minutes for the Fuel Emergency Committee, composed of local citizens, which met evenings in the City Commission chambers. Organizing for visiting delegations was another part of her duties as secretary to the mayor.
Mayor Welsh had been selected by the Town Hall of the Air in 1949 to join organizational leaders on a trip around the world. While he was gone a mass meeting was called in Fulton Park for which Meade issued the permit. Four thousand attended and it was decided to start recall procedures against Mayor Welsh. Because of his absence from the city the recall papers were served on her. Welsh cabled his resignation from Rome and resigned July 19, 1949. Commissioner Stanley J. Davis was appointed May for the interim, and Paul G. Goebel was elected mayor in 1950.
Paul G. Goebel, brother of former city manager Frank Goebel, was elected mayor in 1950. In 1952 Meade had the unusual opportunity of assisting the Mayor's Welcoming Committee in planning the reception for the reigning monarch, Her Majesty Juliana, Queen of the Netherlands and His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard. In 1954 an upset election put George Veldman in the mayor's office and George Welsh returned as City Manager.
In 1964 when Mayor Stanley Davis was in office Meade was given the title of Secretary to the City Manager, which at that time was not in the City Charter and therefore not under Civil Service. It was not until the move to the new City Hall in 1969 that the duties for both City Manager and Mayor performed by Meade were finally divided. During the years from 1963-1966 when the Story of Grand Rapids was being written and published, she assisted the editor, Z. Z. Lydens, as a consultant on municipal affairs and was acknowledged in the book.
An outstanding event for Meade and her connection with the business and political world was the honor of being selected Secretary of the Year through the National Secretaries Association in April of 1970. Mayor Sonneveldt attended the dinner at Blythefield Country Club with her where the award was made.
Twenty-five years, seven months, and twenty-eight days from the time she walked into City Hall as a vacation replacement, and having experienced a second heart attack, Meade decided to retire from the exciting work at the hub of the political wheel on August 4, 1971. A retirement party, a gala event done in the "South of the Border" theme, was held at Cecil's Ranch House where 200 friends were gathered to honor her.
Remaining active in retirement, in February of 1974, Meade was appointed by Mayor Lyman Parks as a member of the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, which had earlier published "The Story of Grand Rapids." The current project was to publish the Pictorial History of Grand Rapids. She also served on the Historical Commission during the Bi-centennial-Sesquicentennial celebration in 1976 when many activities took place on the local scene.
Helen Meade served as a trusted confidant to seven mayors and twelve city managers, often serving two members of city government with differing opinions while maintaining the confidence of both. She shaped material put before them for consideration and handled many day-to-day duties for them. Even though this position took a large amount of time she was a charter member of the local National Secretaries Association, President of the Claudian League for Crippled Children, all while raising a young family. Helen May Meade passed away in October of 1984 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery with her husband David.
Items Available at the History & Special Collections Dept., GR Public Library
- Collection #158, Helen May Meade Scrapbook
- Collection #317, George W. Welsh
- Collection #294, Lyman Parks
- Veritcal files for several City Managers and Mayors
- Biography and Portrait files for several City Managers and Mayors