Helen Tirsell, a forerunner in women’s equality and the first female mayor of Livermore, passed away in Oakland on Saturday, Sept. 5, at the age of 85.
Armed with a higher education, a passion for public policy and a strong support system, Helen was an environmental advocate, a champion of civil rights and a member of the American Association of University Women of California, the nation’s leading organization advocating equity for women.
“My mom was courageous, passionate, feisty, kind with a huge heart, a great friend to many, funny, creative, a wonderful role model for me and all of my girlfriends, and a loving mom,” said Elaine Tirsell Barden, Helen’s daughter. “I was 9 (when she was elected mayor) and very proud and happy that she found a challenge and so much joy in planning for the future of a city she loved so much. I also saw firsthand the challenges facing women in powerful positions — there were times that other women literally spit on her for ‘inappropriately working outside of the home’ and for neglecting her children, which couldn’t be further from the truth. She was an amazing role model, and there’s nothing like a young girl seeing her mom hold a gavel at a public meeting, making significant decisions and leading her fellow council members.”
Despite the weight of the work she was doing and the oftentimes hostile members of the public, Helen never let her dedication to her city or her family waver.
“She was a pioneer in the first generation of women seeking equality and a voice in the community,” said Don Tirsell, Helen’s son. “Her midwestern roots kept her firmly grounded, but she stepped outside the norm of being solely a wife and mother to apply her vast education, intellect, leadership skills and curiosity to causes and organizations. She got along with all generations, mentored many students and extended networks through challenges. Most of all, she loved her family, especially her four grandchildren, and seeing them grow up to become young adults.”
Reflecting on her life and her time in politics, colleagues and friends described Helen as a dynamic, personable, woman committed to making Livermore a well-planned and desirable place to live. Over the years, she managed to reconcile disparate interests, entertain a reasonable growth rate, and balance the community.
“Helen and I met while judging a Lions Club Student Speakers contest for high school pupils in 1974, during her first term on the city council,” said Dr. Marshall Kamena, president of the Tri-Valley Community TV Foundation and mayor emeritus of Livermore. “(Our working relationship) grew closer with time, as we worked on political issues of importance to Livermore. Growth versus no-growth was at the heart of the disagreement. However, the issue of a business-license tax increase was the dividing line at rather large public hearings. As president of the chamber of commerce, I represented the business community and Helen was the city council liaison. We presented a joint proposal that was sensitive to the individual business structures of various categories. Companies with high gross earnings, but smaller net profit, such as auto dealers, were to pay a smaller rate on its total income. Helen convinced the city council of its merit. New relationships of cooperation were formed, and trust followed.”
Though Helen has left this world, the impact of her life will reverberate for generations.
“Mom paved the way for other women in political office — whether it be Cathie Brown, her dear friend and former mayor; Diane Feinstein, who Helen campaigned for passionately; or Valarie Raymond, one of the first female supervisors for Alameda County. She served as an important example,” said Elaine. “If she could leave the world with one message, I think it would be to have a balance of both men and women in positions of authority."
In addition to making a historical mark on Livermore, Helen’s devotion to her family made impressions on their hearts they will always carry with them.
“Helen was a loving, giving mother, wife and friend,” said Don. “She gave her time and heart to her children, husband, community and an extended network of friends and interests ... We will miss her tremendously.”