Loving mother, teacher, dies at 96
March 16, 2023
Family, friends and caregivers from the Juneau Pioneer Home gathered Sunday at the Presbyterian Church and the Pioneer Bar to celebrate, as daughter Christy Fowler noted, the "strong heart, generous spirit and great sense of humor," of Helen Tengs, 96, who died March 5 in Juneau following a stroke. She had Alzeimer's disease.
"Mom taught me to love music. She taught me humility," Tony Tengs said, while telling the attendees the story of his mother's life in music and words, concluding with a sing-a-long of her favorite song, "You Are My Sunshine." Grandsons Marty and Chevy Fowler produced a video of Tengs singing and dancing, and read heartfelt lines from a journal. Christy Fowler shared "Love Letter," a poem addressed to her mother that included the line, "You are the one who taught me to climb on the chair and reach for the stars." Afterward at the Pioneer Bar, the talk was unified: how fun, inclusive and pleasant Tengs was.
Tengs came to Haines in 1951 to teach fifth grade. Her friend Teresa Land's (late) husband David was in that class, and told her, "for the first time in his life he loved going to school." Tengs brought "joy" to her students, Land said, especially the Tlingit ones, like David, who had not been treated well by the educational system in the 1940s and 50s.
Tengs left teaching a few years later after being "swept off her feet,'' Tony said, by construction worker Marty Tengs. They married in 1953 and soon moved into the apartment above the Pioneer Bar which Marty soon took over. "She never imagined they'd wind up owning the bar," Tony said. He described the 1950s Pioneer Bar as a "wild place and popular social center, complete with a drum set, an upright piano and barber chair." He was born in 1954 and his sister arrived the following year.
In the 1950s and 60s Haines was a boomtown, with two sawmills, a cannery, the Army tank farm and fuel pipeline, fledgling ferry system, the only road north, and a new dock. The bar thrived, but her children said the marriage and family suffered from Marty's excesses. Tony said that his mother considered divorce, but at the time it was "not done" and instead they built a new home away from the bar.
Helen adored her children and had close women friends. She was involved in school activities, Cub Scouts, joined the Presbyterian Church and taught Sunday school. She played the heroine of Lynn Canal Community Players' summer melodrama "The Smell of the Yukon."
"Helen was the perfect Daisy," LCCP mainstay Annette Smith said. "She sang this song that ended with, '...a man was the cause of it all." Tengs could be counted on to perform in talent shows. She also volunteered at the Haines Sheldon Museum, was an officer at the local Emblem Club, and the club's National Corresponding Secretary. She enjoyed crafts and growing flowers.
It was fitting that her memorial was on Oscar's Sunday, as for years she hosted Academy Award parties in which she and her friends dressed in gowns, walked a red carpet, sipped Brandy Alexanders and guessed who'd win, even though in the pre-internet era Tengs and most of her guests had not seen the films.
The Katzeek family adopted Tengs when she was a young woman, an honor she took to heart, attending gatherings in Klukwan and remembering birthdays and holidays until her 2006 stroke.
Helen Bergstrand Tengs was born in 1926 in Amery, Wisconsin, the fifth of six children of Swedish American farmer Frank Bergstrand and Ruby Bergstrand. Her mother was born in Australia, grew up in Switzerland and spoke five languages. Tony credited his mother's kind spirit in part to her beloved older sister who had special needs. "Mom loved people for who they were," he said. Her father and uncle played fiddle and guitar for barn dances. She loved to sing, dance and play piano, which was a prerequisite for teachers in that district. Her first job was at a one–room schoolhouse where she made sure the students all had lunch. She dreamed of adventures, and "jumped at the chance to come to Alaska," Tony said, traveling to Haines with a girlfriend who also would teach here.
Her children said that after Tengs' husband curtailed his drinking, they had many good years together as bridge partners, traveling, and at their winter home in Desert Hot Springs, California before he died in 2000. Both Tony and Christy write and perform country and folk songs inspired by their colorful childhood and the parents they loved. The family still owns the Pioneer Bar, and the Fowler's live upstairs. In 2006, Helen Tengs moved back in and lived with the Fowlers for 13 years. She moved to the Pioneer Home in 2019.
In addition to Tony Tengs, Christy, Bob, Chevy and Marty Fowler, she leaves nephew Roger Bergstrand (Wendy), grandniece Kisa Bergstrand and many relatives in the Katzeek family.
Donations in Helen's memory may be made to the Haines Senior Center PO Box 801 Haines AK 99827 or the Juneau Pioneer Home, 4675 Glacier Hwy, Juneau, AK 99801