03. 2003 9:22PM
Centenarian treated like a
`big shot' for the day
By Harrison Metzger
Times-News Staff Writer
A few years ago, when Helga Nielsen was only in her 90s, she was
riding with some friends when they came upon a motorcyclist who
had just flipped his bike off U.S. 25 South.
"We were just past Jackson Funeral Home when we saw the
motorcycle wreck," said her friend Ike Olson, 79. "Helga
said, `Stop the car.'"
Nielsen, he said, "jumped out of the car like a young
woman" and checked on the rider, who fortunately had landed
in the grass.
"She came back and said, `He's OK, I checked him, let's
go,'" Olson said. "I think she would do that for
The story wouldn't surprise friends of Nielsen's. A longtime
nurse -- and a Hendersonville resident for the past 27 years --
she celebrated her 100th birthday Friday.
Friends say Nielsen has always been concerned with the needs of
others, strong-willed, independent and unabashed.
"She says what's on her mind," said Hilda Olson,
Nielsen's friend and Ike's wife. "She's not intimidated by
The Olsons were among about 20 friends who gathered Friday
morning at the Van Winkle Law Firm to celebrate Nielsen's
century with cake, coffee, fruit and a few gifts. They smiled
and laughed as she entertained them with a wit undulled by age.
Someone asked the Denmark native when she first came to America.
"I was 28 years old and I was born in 1903 -- you figure it
out," she quipped.
Another friend mentioned Nielsen's habit of walking as something
that has contributed to her longevity. An avid hiker, Nielsen
still walks from her apartment near downtown to the Grocery
Outlet and the law office across South Main Street.
"What can I do? I don't have a car anymore," she said,
prompting more laughter.
Nielsen was born near Alborg, Denmark, and first traveled to
England at age 14 to work as a housemaid. She also lived in
France a few years.
"I tell you, there is nothing more revealing than going to
a foreign country and not knowing anything (about the language)
other than `yes' and `no,'" she said.
Nielsen said she waited years to come to America, but when the
time came for her to travel, her papers were lost between
Denmark and England.
"America shut off the immigration. They knew I was right
there," she joked. "I cried on America's shoulder, and
they let me in."
Nielsen earned a GED and a nursing certificate at New York State
University. She married and had two children, a son and a
daughter. When they reached college age, she went to Chicago to
be certified as an anesthesiologist to earn more money to put
them through college. She was also certified as a registered
nurse in California, North Carolina and Florida, Olson said.
"You know if you work all the time and you get paid, you
don't even have time to count your money," Nielsen said.
"I just worked and saved and worked and saved. You know the
good God has been good to me because I am financially
Decades later, her hard work and generosity have paid dividends
for dozens of mountain students. She established an endowment at
Western Carolina University that has put many Cherokee young
people through the university. She also established an endowment
through the Henderson County Community Foundation and another at
Blue Ridge Community College that funds local scholarships.
"Nothing takes the place of education of the mind,"
Mrs. Olson described Nielsen as a "voracious reader who
only reads things that are educational."
The Olsons have been friends with her since 1989 when she
established the endowment at WCU. Mrs. Olson serves as a
"liaison" for Nielsen in Hendersonville and helps her
manage her affairs.
Nielsen's attorney is Bob Haggard of the Van Winkle firm.
Paralegal Ramona Melton of the office organized Friday's
surprise birthday party. Nielsen has no family nearby; her son
lives in California and her daughter, in St. Thomas, Virgin
"We are her family," Melton said. "She is a
longtime client and a special friend."
One special friend missing at Friday's celebration was Helen
Trumpfheller. The two have been friends for years, and Nielsen
helped care for Trumpfheller's second husband before he died
about two years ago. Mrs. Trumpfheller, 88, is in poor health
and now living with her son in Washington.
More recently, Nielsen has visited with Trumpfheller's daughter,
Mary Jo McKee, comforting her and her husband, Tom, as he has
struggled with cancer.
"She helped him one week when he had pneumonia, and he
helped her put storm windows in her apartment," Mrs. McKee
said. "She's really, really wonderful. Her mind is
Nielsen thanked all her friends for coming to the party.
"Life has been good to me with the help of people like
you," she told them.
She was set to attend another birthday party in her honor Friday
afternoon at the office of her doctor, Lateef Abumoussa.
Abumoussa and his children organized that party.
"I have always been the least of the least -- today I'm a
big shot," she said.