A Conversation With Helaine Bowles, Library Coordinator
Lisa Duncan Photography
Growing up in Chicago with her two little sisters, Helaine Bowles inherited a love of reading from her mother. Her dad was an entrepreneur who started his own Formica tabletop business, and her mom focused on raising the girls. Frequent visits to the local library was a way of life, and during their long summer vacations near Lake Michigan, her mother brought piles of library book—sometimes as many as 40—for them to read together. It’s no surprise that Helaine’s career eventually led to her current role as Administrative Secretary for the Benicia Public Library.
It might surprise you, however, that it was the Rose Parade that brought Helaine and her family to Benicia in 2000.
John “Buddy” Bowles, Helaine’s husband of 37 years, worked in environmental sales before his recent retirement, and his work moved him from Chicago to Florida where the family lived for about a year. From there, they moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where they built a life for nearly 12 years. Their son Brandon was very active in the school band there, and when his dad’s work brought the family to Oakland, he was a sophomore in high school. At that time the award-winning Benicia High School Panther Band was scheduled to perform at the Rose Parade, and that was reason enough to make Benicia their new home.
Like her mother, Helaine was very active in her son’s education—but she was also ambitious in her work life. As a young woman she wanted to take over her father’s Formica business, but he didn’t see it as women’s work. Unhindered by her father’s views, she got a job right out of high school working for a furrier, and then a stock broker, a real estate company and various other jobs before she decided to take courses at Mundelein and Loyola Universities, eventually earning a degree in Communication Studies.
As it turned out, Brandon went on to use his musical background to build a career as a sound engineer, and now works for KGO radio. When he was growing up, Helaine was always active at his schools, eventually serving as PTG president at Benicia High School. To stay busy, she took a part time volunteer coordinator position at the Benicia Public Library, and after Brandon left the nest, she asked for a full-time position, which she still holds today.
In her current role with the city, she is staff to a number of city boards and commissions, and manages city building maintenance projects along with many other tasks. At the library she coordinates most of the adult book clubs that include biographies, mysteries, cookbooks and more. The library now also hosts a number of teen and children’s book clubs. As an avid reader, Helaine says her favorite book is still one she read at age 11—A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, about a tree and a young girl that thrive in spite of difficult circumstances.
Helaine was instrumental in launching the Lawyers in the Library program with the help of local attorneys Steve Gizzi and Scott Reep. On the first Thursday of the month, two lawyers volunteer their time for free 20-minute consultations. Helaine has been involved with Soroptimist of Benicia since 2005 and is proud of the organization’s recent success in launching the first women’s safe house in Benicia. She’s also an active volunteer with Benicia Main Street, an organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of downtown Benicia.
There was a time when Helaine would have moved back to Chicago in a minute if it wasn’t for the cold weather. But now Benicia is her family’s home, and our town has brought them warmth in many ways. When her husband Buddy was recently in a serious car accident, Helaine says they were overwhelmed with kindness, including a visit from a team of Benicia firemen offering support. “In Chicago you could walk through town for days and no one would know you,” says Helaine. “Here you know everyone, and we all care about each other.”