This morning I’d like to tell you the life story of Helen Kreps. Her life story is of interest to us in part because she was a member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto which existed from 1905 to 1934; but more importantly because her experiences in that church led her to an unusual career path for a woman of her day. At the time of her death, she had almost completed her studies to become a Unitarian minister — a very unusual career path for a woman of her generation. Then after I tell you her life story, I’d like to reflect a bit on what it meant for her to be a feminist.
Helen grew up in a military family and had a sometimes adventurous life. Her mother, Helen Amelia Thompson, whose early life is obscure, (1) married Jacob Kreps, (2) a graduate of West Point and a career military officer. (3) They married on January 21, 1891, in Meadville, Pennsylvania, by an Episcopalian minister. (3a) Jacob was then serving with the 22nd Regiment on the upper Great Plains, and he moved his new wife out to live in army forts. Jacob and Helen’s first child, Nora Elizabeth Kreps, was born in North Dakota in July, 1893. Their second child, Helen Katherine Kreps, was born on October 17, 1894, at Fort Pembina, North Dakota (4). Fort Pembina, on the Red River Valley in North Dakota, was then in the process of being abandoned by the War Department, and few men stationed there. The abandonment of Fort Pembina came to a dramatic conclusion on May 25, 1895, a when fire broke out and burned many of the buildings, though not the officer’s quarters where the Kreps family lived (4a) — surely a terrifying situation for a family with two children under the age of two.
By 1896, Jacob’s regiment had moved to newly-built Fort Crook, Nebraska, where he became the Regimental Quartermaster. Fort Crook was the very model of a modern army base; an 1896 newspaper described it thus:
“New Fort Crook is conceded to be the finest and most conveniently arranged post in the United States Army. The trees, which are young and now afford to shade and serve only slightly to relieve the monotony of the grounds, under fostering care will grow rapidly. … On the western side of the parade ground and separated from it only by a stretch of lawn and a macadam driveway is the row of line officers’ quarters, twelve buildings in all, and in the center of this row is to be the commandant’s quarters. Ten of these buildings are exact duplicates and are intended for married officers. … There are mantles in the parlors, sitting rooms, and in the bedrooms upstairs, bath rooms with hot and cold water, steam heat in all of them, and the entire finish of the rooms on the first floor is in hard wood.” (5) What an improvement over the soon-to-be abandoned Fort Pembina!
The family continued to move frequently, as is often the case with military families. After two years at Fort Crook, in April, 1898, Jacob’s regiment was posted to the Philippines. Jacob left behind a pregnant wife; their third and youngest child, John Kreps, called “Jack,” was born in July, 1898. By 1900, the three Kreps children were living with their mother in Coronado City, California, presumably to be near the port in San Diego, a major link to the Philippines. (6) By 1902, the family was back at Fort Crook, and Jacob remained there until 1903, when he moved the family to Pittsburgh; there, Helen and her sister were in a wedding party for their uncle’s wedding. (7)
In January, 1906, the family moved yet again, this time to northern California. Jacob rejoined his regiment at Fort McDowell on Angel Island near San Francisco. There they all experienced the great earthquake of 1906. Jacob’s battalion was in downtown San Francisco the morning of the earthquake, and he participated in relief efforts in the weeks after the quake. We have to wonder what Helen and her siblings thought of the earthquake. Really, we know nothing of Helen except the fact that she had been part of a wedding. But as she become older, she begins to emerge as a person in her own right.
In June, 1908, when Helen was 13, the family moved to Nome Alaska, where Jacob took command of Fort Davis. Helen attended Nome High School. While in high school, she wrote an essay about the Eskimos, the indigenous people living near Nome. Though Helen called them “simple and thoughtless,” and “dull in intellect,” she also said they were a “simple, honest, affectionate people” who did not know what theft was until they met people of European descent (8). Her racial stereotyping is typical of her time, but she was at least willing to acknowledge that there were ways in which the indigenous people were superior to European Americans (9).
Nora and Helen both graduated from Nome High School in 1910. Jacob had to go to Kansas with his regiment, while Helen and Nora and their mother moved to Palo Alto so the girls could attend Stanford University. But Helen and Nora were not able to enter Stanford that year, as Helen wrote in a letter to Nome:
“Well, Bob, we aren’t in Stanford after all, though we hoped to enter there this semester… The cause, briefly, is that they wouldn’t accredit the high school… Consequently we have to graduate again from high school here before we will be allowed to go to Stanford… It was a terrible disappointment to us. So you see for yourself that they do not teach up to the standard methods up in Nome.” (10) In this letter, sixteen year old Helen goes beyond her personal disappointment to critique the educational methods of her high school.
Staying in Palo Alto during the academic year of 1910-1911, (11) the girls enrolled in Palo Alto High School to get their diploma from an accredited school. (11a) While at Palo Alto High School, Helen entered an essay competition sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a progressive social movement, and won second prize with her essay, “Alcohol and the Laborer.” (11b)
Beginning in the fall of 1910, Helen attended the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. At this time, Rev. Florence Buck, one of the few women Unitarian ministers of the day, was filling in for Rev. Clarence Reed. Helen was deeply influenced both by Unitarianism, and by seeing a woman in the pulpit. (12) One suspects that Helen was also inspired by other strong women in the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. Many of the Unitarian women in Palo Alto were active in the successful 1911 campaign for women’s suffrage in California. There were, for example: Alice Locke Park, an early feminist who was active with both the state and National Woman’s Suffrage League; Annie Corbert, a native of Nantucket Island who was president of the Santa Clara County Equal Suffrage Association; Emily Karns Dixon, heiress and president of the Palo Alto Suffrage League; and Helen Sutliff, a career librarian at Stanford and active in the suffrage movement. Perhaps Helen, the daughter of a career military officer, didn’t completely agree with Alice Parke’s pacifist views; but certainly any of these women could have served as powerful feminist role models for a bright 16 year old girl.
Helen and her sister Nora entered Stanford in the 1911-12 academic year. Their father now in New Mexico, but they stayed in Palo Alto. At Stanford, Helen majored in German — her father was of German descent. She participated in the summer, 1914, session of the Marine Biological Library, was elected president of the Stanford English Club, and worked as a filing clerk in the library. (13) She and members of her sorority, Delta Delta Delta, hosted a Christmas party for the poor children of Mayfield. (14) She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, was vice-president of the English Club, and a member of the Press Club. (15) She graduated in 1915 with high honors.
After graduation, Helen stayed in Palo Alto and worked in the Stanford library as a cataloguer during the 1915-1916 academic year. Her father had retired from the U.S. Army in 1914, so she was living with her father, mother, and sister; her brother Jack was in a boarding school nearby in Los Gatos. (16) During the 1915-1916 year, Helen became more deeply involved with the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. She taught the first and second graders in the Sunday school at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, and she also made regular financial contributions to the church beginning in early 1916; presumably at this time, she became a member of the church, though the membership records are now lost. (17)
Perhaps during this year after graduating from Stanford, Helen was deciding what to do with her life, for in the fall of 1916, she took a bold step: she entered the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry. This was a bold step because at that time, Helen was “the only woman in the state of California who has entered a theological school.” (18) She explained to a meeting of Unitarians in October why she decided to go against societal expectations for women to become a minister:
“The church today … must make it worth while for its members to attend. It must hold forth ideals and principles which appeal to the modern conscience. It must clothe the fundamental truths and beauties of religions in up-to-date raiment. People can not now be expected to attend services merely because their parents did. They must go because they get something which makes life richer or better. I think a woman in the ministry can exert a powerful influence not only on the members of her sex, but on the entire congregation. But she must be mentally equipped.” (19)
Clearly Helen Kreps was mentally equipped for Unitarian ministry, given her distinguished degree from Stanford. But she was more than mentally equipped; Earl Morse Wilbur, the president of the school, commented on Helen’s exceptional character:
“Quiet and modest in bearing though she was, never asserting herself or her views, yet we instinctively felt that in her there was depth and breadth of character, and as she moved about among us she won a respect and exerted an influence that belong to few. I remember saying to myself at the end of her first chapel service, in which the depth and sincerity of her religious nature were revealed, that I should count myself happy if she might sometime be my minister; and those who were present at the devotional service which she conducted at the Conference at Berkeley last spring will not soon forget the impression she then made.” (20)
In spite of her obvious gifts for Unitarian ministry, Helen felt she had to continue to explain her reasons for entering the ministry. In the summer of 1917, she addressed the Associate Alliance of Northern California, the umbrella organization for Unitarian women’s groups in the region, saying provocatively that she “thought it strange that there were so few women in the pulpit,” especially considering that the women in the Unitarian ministry had been so successful as ministers; Helen mentioned Rev. Florence Buck as one such woman minister. Helen pointed out that women were doing great work in the current war effort, and that “woman’s entrance into the pulpit would supply just the touch needed to fill to completeness her work for the goodness of humanity.” (21) What Helen was telling her audience was that women could offer a great deal more in service to humanity, than only serving as wives and mothers.
In her second year in graduate school, the 1917 to 1918 academic year, Helen and Julia Budlong, a classmate of hers also preparing for Unitarian ministry, did their part for the war effort by taking a class in Red Cross nursing at the University of California at Berkeley. By this time, Helen’s brother Jack was fighting in the trenches in Europe, and her father had been recalled to duty to serve on the home front. (22) The decision to take a class in nursing was to prove fateful for Helen.
During the summer of 1918, before her third and final year of theological school, Helen supplied the pulpit of All Souls Unitarian Church in Santa Cruz. One sermon title has survived; on June 1, 1918, she spoke on “The Moral Aims of the War” — perhaps a natural topic for the child of a retired Major of the U.S. Army. (22a) She returned to the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry in the fall. She was well on her way to receiving her degree summa cum laude, (23) and was looking forward to being ordained as a Unitarian minister in June. (24)
But then the world-wide influenza epidemic struck the Bay Area in the autumn of 1918. By October, influenza had taken hold on the Berkeley campus. More than four hundred students were ill. Stiles Hall, Hearst Hall, and Harmon Gym had been converted into temporary infirmaries. (24a) Helen Kreps and her classmate Julia Budlong, both cross-registered in the theological school and at Berkeley, responded to a call for volunteer nurses: “When the emergency call came for nurses to care for the hundreds of victims on the campus they both volunteered without a moment’s hesitation. It was expected that the trouble would be over and that they would return to work within two weeks. Instead they paid as dearly for their patriotic service as many soldiers have done. Both were soon stricken with the influenza.” (25)
Helen’s case proved to be the more severe of the two. She developed pneumonia, and remained ill for months. She was moved to the military hospital in San Francisco to receive treatment. Her health slowly began to improve, and there was hope that, after a long recovery, she would be able to return to her studies in the autumn of 1919. (25a) But while still in a weakened state, Helen contracted diphtheria, and died on February 23, 1919, at Letterman General Hospital in the San Francisco Presidio. (26) She was buried in San Francisco National Cemetery, not far from where her father and mother were later buried. (27)
In a moment I’ll talk about Helen Kreps’ feminism, but given that we’re in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic that’s similar to to the 1918 influenza epidemic, I feel I should speak for just a moment about the ethics of how societies respond to pandemics. Helen Kreps’ story brings into sharp focus the human cost of pandemics. How do we balance the deaths of people like Helen Kreps against the damage done by social restrictions? How do we balance individual suffering and death against the economic costs of pandemic control? I don’t have an answer to this ethical balancing act; in fact, I’m troubled by those who claim that they do have a final answer. It is quite clear that some form of social restrictions are needed to prevent uncontrolled spread of the disease. Beyond that, we know that people sink into poverty when such social restrictions prevent them from working. Although economists tell us that economic recovery is faster where social restrictions are imposed, (28) it’s still a balancing act. We also know that the current shelter-in-place order is making things worse for people who are suffering from domestic violence, mental illness, etc. In such an impossible situation, there can be no final definitive answer.
Given what we know of her mind and character, I would speculate that Helen Kreps might have had some interesting comments on this ethical question. But rather than speculate, I’m going to turn to Helen Kreps’ feminism, about which we know more.
The first thing that strikes me about Helen Kreps is this: she exemplifies one of the best aspects of both the ministry and of military culture: a strong call to duty. Why did she take a nursing class, when she was all too busy with her studies? She felt a call to duty; her father had come out of retirement to help with the war effort, her brother was fighting in the trenches in Europe, her mother was the managing director of the Red Cross chapter in Palo Alto; the least that Helen could do was to train as a nurse. Why did Helen drop her studies and volunteer to be a nurse at the university infirmary? She felt called to the duty of using her training to help her fellow human beings. For most people today, duty has become less important than individual freedom. (We see this, in fact, when people refuse to follow COVID-19 restrictions; they are placing their individual freedom before duty to humanity.) But for Helen Kreps, duty was more important.
Helen Kreps felt the call of duty, and that call of duty led her to become a feminist. She was not a feminist because she longed for individual freedom. Instead, she told an audience of women Unitarians the reason she was preparing to be a woman minister was because she wanted to use her gifts to work for the “goodness of humanity.” This may sound old-fashioned. Today, we are more likely to hear people justifying feminism on grounds of personal freedom, on the grounds that all persons have certain rights which they must be allowed to exercise. Indeed, the principles and purposes of our Unitarian Universalist Association begin by asserting, not a call to duty, but the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Yet Helen Kreps makes the point that humanity needs the skills and talents, not just of men, but of every gender. So she decided to become a Unitarian minister in order to use her intellectual gifts, and her depth and breadth of character, to bring goodness to all humanity.
Today, when we are justifying equality for women — or equality for non-white people, or equality for non-heterosexual people, or equality for poor wnd working class people — we are most likely to talk about freedom and individual rights. Freedom and individual rights are certainly important, but the life of Helen Kreps shows us a larger possibility: the reason we fight for equality is not just to achieve freedom for individuals, but more importantly that equality will contribute to the greater goodness of all humanity.
I do wonder what Helen Kreps would have accomplished if she had not died of influenza. I think she would have continued to have been inspired by the ideal of duty to humanity. Even though the Unitarian men running the American Unitarian Association essentially did away with jobs for women ministers through most of the twentieth century, Helen Kreps was particularly brilliant and gifted. I think she, like her mentor Florence Buck, would have found a way to influence Unitarianism for the better. She would have been another voice reminding us that our religion does not exist just to serve our individuality; but that we also exist to strive for the greater goodness of all humanity.
(1) Helen Amelia Thompson Kreps lived from July 17, 1863 to Nov. 5, 1955. It is difficult to find anything about her prior to her marriage; she may be the Helen Thompson in the 1880 census who was living in a boarding house on Center St., Meadville, with her mother Sonora.
(2) Jacob Fordney Kreps lived from Oct. 22, 1860 to June 10, 1939. He was the son of a distinguished Civil War veteran.
(3) I’ve taken the main outlines of Jacob Kreps’ early military career (up to 1898) from M. H.T., “Jacob F. Kreps,” West Point Assoc. of Graduates, apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/ 3011/ accessed Nov. 18, 2016. For his career after 1898, I also used George W. Cullum, ed. Wirt Robinson, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Supplement, Volume VI-A, 1910-1920 (Saginaw, Mich.: Sherman A. Peters, Printer, 1920), p. 366 [entry 3011].
(3a) Marriage License Docket of the Orphan’s Court of Crawford County [Penna.], lic. no. 2462, Jacob F. Kreps and Helen A. Thompson, dated Jan. 19, 1891.
(4) Army and Navy Journal, Nov. 3, 1894, p. 163.
(4a) William Ash, “Fort Pembina,” Rootsweb, sites.rootsweb.com/ ~mnrrvn/Essay-Fort-Pembina.html accessed 13 May 2020.
(5) Omaha Bee, June 22, 1896, quoted in “Fort Crook,” History of Nebraska Web site, history.nebraska.gov/publications/fort-crook
accessed 9 May 2020.
(6) 1900 U.S. Census. The Army and Navy Journal, p. 902, May 10, 1902, reported: “Captain J. F. Kreps 22nd U.S. Inf. has joined his wife and children at Coronado Beach, Cal., after having spent more than three years in the Philippines.”
(7) Unsigned announcement, The Index, vol. X no. 16 (Pittsburgh, Penna., Oct. 22, 1904), p. 13.
(8) Alaska History, vol. 20, p.44, Alaska Historical Society.
(9) Preston Jones, Empire’s Edge: American Society in Nome, Alaska, 1898-1934 (Univ. of Alaska Press, 2006).
(10) Helen Kreps, letter to the Nome Nugget, May 6, 1911, p. 4; quoted in John Poling, A History of the Nome, Alaska Public Schools: 1899 to 1958 (Master’s thesis, Alaska College, 1970).
(11) According to the Directory of Palo Alto and the Campus, (Palo Alto: Times Pub., 1911), Helen and Nora lived with their mother at 521 Addison St.
(11a) Daily Palo Alto, Sept. 7, 1910, p. 1: “Among new students who have entered the Palo Alto High School are Misses Nora B. sod Helen C. Kreps from Nome.”
(11b) “School Essayists Are Awarded Prizes,” Daily Palo Alto Times, June 2, 1911, p. 1.
(12) Earl Morse Wilbur, “Helen Katharine Kreps,” pp. 64-65, and “Our School for the Ministry,” p. 63, Pacific Unitarian, March 1919.
(13) Stanford University Alumni Directory, 1921; Annual Registers, Stanford University, 1912-1915; Stanford Daily, Dec. 3, 1914.
(14) San Francisco Call, Dec. 26, 1912, p.1.
(15) Kappa Alpha Theta, Jan., 1915, vol. 29, p. 100.
(16) The family lived at 1129 Emerson. Directory of Palo Alto, Mayfield, and Stanford University (Palo Alto: Willis Hall, 1915). In this year, her brother Jack was in a boarding school in Los Gatos (Palo Altan, April 17, 1914, p. 5).
(17) Records of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. After making contributions in 1916, the notation “discontinued thru removal” appears under her account in the church ledger books.
(18) Pacific Unitarian, Oct., 1916, p. 313.
(21) Pacific Unitarian, June/July, 1917, p. 215.
(22) Wilbur. Helen’s mother, Helen T. Kreps, was acting Managing Director of the Palo Alto Red Cross in 1918 (Daily Palo Alto Times, Sept. 6, 1918, p. 3).
(22a) Santa Cruz Evening News, June 1, 1918, p. 6.
(24) “In memoriam: Helen Katharine Kreps,” Kappa Alpha Theta, May, 1919, p. 291.
(24a) Rex. W. Adams, “The 1918 Spanish Influenza,” Chronicle of the University of California, spring, 1998, p. 52 (online PDF https://cshe.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/chron1_excerpt_adams.pdf accessed 14 May 2020).
(25a) Ibid. Two other college women who served as nurses also died, Elizabeth Webster and Charlotte Norton, as well as two staff nurses employed by the university; these four deaths were reported by Robert Legge, University physician, in the Annual Report of the President (Univ. of Calif., 1919); but it is not clear why he did not also report Helen’s death.
(26) Stanford Daily, Feb. 25, 1919.
(27) She is buried in section OS row 96 site 5 of San Francisco National Cemetery.
(28) Peter Dizikes, “The data speak: Stronger pandemic response yields better economic recovery,” MIT News Web site, posted March 31, 2020 https://news.mit.edu/2020/pandemic-health-response-economic-recovery-0401 accessed May 14 2020.