Helen E. Cummings
1926 - 2021
Our mother and grandmother, Helen L. Exar Cummings, was a remarkable woman and a unique individual. Living from the 1920’s until now, she was highly educated for her time when careers for women were not the norm. But she was proudest to be Greek-American and to be a mother and grandmother to those she loved most.
Born in Norristown, PA., on June 21, 1922, to Louis and Ethel Exar (formerly Elias Exarhakos and Athina Lagakos), who each immigrated from the Laconia region around Sparta, Greece, she was their first child, followed by brother Nicholas. After renting nearby houses, our grandparents purchased 626 Swede Street, where they lived and raised their family.
Mom once said that she studied music at her parents’ insistence. She learned the piano, and at Norristown High School she played violin in the school orchestra. Music is a love shared by many in the Lagakos family. Years later it became our own family get-togethers, as we’d stand and sing at the piano as she played show tunes and Christmas Carols.
Our grandpop’s biggest ambition was to educate his children, and he did. Both Mom and Uncle Nick graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Mom attended class by riding the trolley and then the Market Street subway all the way to University City. She earned her B.A. in 1948, her M.A. in Education in 1949.
While doing so, she met our father/ grandfather, Constantine Peter (“Connie”) Camamis, at a 1946 Christmas party of the Hellenic University Club of Philadelphia. They were introduced by Dad's best friend, Louis Alikakos, his high school classmate from New Brunswick, NJ. They had a long-distance courtship between New York and Norristown while he was in graduate school, and they were married on November 27, 1949, at St. George's Cathedral, Philadelphia. Soon after, they changed their last name to Cummings. They first lived in the Swede Street house, and Mom started teaching high school while Dad finished his PhD at Penn State. Son Curtis came along in 1953, daughter Nina in 1954. They bought their home in 1956 in a new development in the Strafford section of Wayne, PA, 555 Weadley Road, where they lived out their lives.
Mom’s teaching career lasted 40 years, with a pause for the children. She did so when women were not often employed or so well educated. From 1949 until the 1960’s she was at one of several area high schools, then taught full-time at Upper Merion High School through 1988. She taught social studies and history, becoming Upper Merion’s first Middle East expert. We remember her reading and grading student assignments into the evenings during school years.
Even when working, she always drove us and assisted Nina and Curtis with our many activities, such as music and swim and dance lessons and Girl and Boy Scouts, and took us herself on some vacations. Once she said that being there with us at those times was her greatest pleasure. But she also enjoyed her own hobbies with an artistic streak. She made crafts such as ceramics that we still have, and traveled on her own to Europe and elsewhere.
Mom and Dad were both emeritus members (50-year member) of the Hellenic University Club of Philadelphia, and they were founding stewards in 1963 of St. Luke's Greek Orthodox Church, Broomall, where they attended the laying of its cornerstone. She was one of the group of the first St. Luke’s Sunday School teachers, where she served for over 10 years. They traveled to the Lagakos family villages Gythion and Kastania below Sparta, and to Dad’s family’s home island, Limnos, and to other places.
Over the years Mom and Dad had active social lives, including playing bridge with friends, and Mom joined the Cabrini College Community Choir. After retirement, they lived January through March each year on Clearwater Beach, Florida, until later illnesses. She and Dad had been married for 61 years when he passed away in 2011.
She had a remarkable number of friends, with whom she spent time visiting and on the phone. But her family was her greatest pride, she said: son Curtis E. Cummings MD MPH, his sons Elias (Elliott) and Thomsen Cummings and wife Maria Gregory, daughter Nina B. Cummings PhD and husband Allan N. Tannenbaum PhD, and their children Alexis and Bryan Tannenbaum.
In many ways, Mom was a perfect example of what we call The Greatest Generation. They thrived through the Great Depression, the Big War, the Cold War, the atomic age and the jet age, and much more.
But Mom was, above all, a lover of people.
A private graveside service will be held 11am Monday April 19, 2021 in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, 225 Belmont Avenue, Bala Cynwyd, PA. 19004. Family and friends may meet inside the main gates at 10:45am.
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Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research