Helen Watson of Bay Hill serves as dean of women at Rollins College in Winter Park.
Dec. 11, 2011, will mark an important milestone for longtime Bay Hill resident Helen Watson, when she celebrates her 100th birthday.
At more than 70,000, the U.S. currently has the largest number of centenarians in the world. Japan is ranked No. 2, with more than 44,000. Defined as someone age 100 or older, centenarians are often associated with longevity, as the average life expectancy throughout the world is younger than 100. Traditionally, U.S. residents who reach this milestone receive a congratulatory letter from the president.
Though born in Indiana, Helen considers herself a true Floridian, as she and her brother, Wayne, were raised in Coral Gables in the early 1900s. Despite growing up during the lowest point of the Great Depression, she and her family weathered the difficult time with a positive outlook. Her father worked for Florida Power & Light Co. in Miami, and her mother worked at a Burdines department store.
Conveniences many people take for granted today were luxuries when Helen was a child.
“We didn’t have a telephone in the house for a long time,” Helen said. “When we did, it was a party line, so if you picked it up and someone was talking, we had to hang up. Mother wouldn’t let us listen.”
Ford Motor Co.’s Model T, generally considered to be the first affordable automobile, had just made its debut when Helen was born.
“I remember that my father had an Overland [automobile], and we had to crank it to get it started,” she said.
In the early 20th century, women were not expected to attend college, much less have a career. However, Helen enrolled at Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, which later became Florida State University. When she attended, there were 2,000 students at the all-women college. She studied psychology because she wanted to go into counseling and help people.
Bay Hill resident Helen Watson annually sends a Christmas card to her former students, often with a humorous photo.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree, she earned a master’s in psychology from Simmons College in Boston. Upon graduation, she worked in the personnel department at Strawbridge & Clothier in Philadelphia.
It was while she was in Philadelphia that Helen met her husband, Jack Watson. They married in 1937 and moved to Palm Beach, where he worked as an architect.
After losing his job because of the economy, Jack and Helen moved to Gainesville, where they lived while he planned buildings for the University of Florida campus.
The Watsons later moved to Jacksonville, where he continued his architectural career, and Helen
became the personnel director at a local department store. It was around this time that Jack enlisted in the U.S. Navy, as the country entered World War II. Helen continued to work while Jack was in the service.
Roger Babson, one of the few businessmen to survive the Great Depression with his fortune intact, founded Babson College in Boston, primarily for the sons of his wealthy clients so they could learn to invest and manage the money they would later inherit.
Under pressure from clients who only had daughters, Babson later co-founded Webber College, now known as Webber International University, in Babson Park, Fla. When looking for someone to establish and run the retailing department at his all-female school, Babson contacted Simmons College for a recommendation. Helen’s name came up, and Babson immediately pursued the successful businesswoman, ultimately persuading her to leave her career in personnel and come to Webber.
Helen Watson, a longtime resident of Bay Hill, celebrates her 90th birthday.
Initially, her job was to purchase books, hire teachers, interview students and run the retail department. But when she looked over the proposed curriculum, she put her two cents in. She said that if a student took the course, she would not be ready to work in retail. So, Helen set about revising the curriculum and taught for one year, with the intention of leaving when the war ended and Jack came home. She did not take into account that she would enjoy her new career in education. Helen stayed at Webber, eventually becoming its youngest and first female president.
Once the war ended, Helen and Jack lived together in Winter Park, and Helen commuted more than 60 miles to Babson Park.
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