The news of Helen Chavez’s unexpected death on 18 April came as a shock to her family and many colleagues and friends. For a few weeks she had been suffering from the Covid-19 virus. She died suddenly from underlying health conditions at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary at the age of 61.
As tributes poured in from around the world, it became apparent just how many lives Helen had touched. This warm, kind-hearted, generous, bright, funny, interesting and delightfully eccentric lady with twinkling eyes and a welcoming nature was described as a “force of human decency who somehow seemed to embody all that was good about human nature”.
Helen was born in Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland. Educated at Homelands Grammar School in Derby, she relocated to rural Aberdeenshire in her twenties where she met her late American husband, Mark. They settled in Methlick, raising cattle on a croft, and those who knew her well will recall her entertaining animal tales.
Before embarking on her museum career, Helen had a variety of interesting jobs; she was a nanny for a family of three children, she recorded milk data on a farm, and she worked in secrecy for the Royal Observer Corps.
In 2000 she joined Special Libraries & Archives at the University of Aberdeen. There she had fun listing, sorting, researching and cataloguing manuscript collections and her passion for archives grew. To quote the printed inscription on her coffee mug: “I’m an archivist. I solve problems you don’t know you have in ways you can’t understand.”
Two years later Helen joined Aberdeenshire Council Museums Service in Mintlaw. As collections management officer, she took delight in researching and cataloguing the council’s rich and diverse museum collections comprising archival material and 250,000 objects. She was awarded a postgraduate diploma from the University of Leicester and became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
Helen excelled the most when she was out and about in Aberdeenshire’s communities, giving talks and hands-on demonstrations with infectious enthusiasm and passion. Volunteers, work placement students, and museums and heritage societies across the shire all benefited from her wealth of knowledge, encouragement and support. A dedicated and well-respected museum professional, she is a huge loss to museum services in north-east Scotland.
In the words of one of her many colleagues and friends: “The world is much less without Helen; she was one of life’s builders who also created a beautiful space of fun and knowledge around her.”
Much loved, Helen is deeply missed and will be remembered fondly by all those who had the privilege to meet her.
Fiona Slattery Clark was the museums development co-ordinator for Live Life Aberdeenshire Museums Service from 2015 to 2020