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Helene Patricia Jennings
July 23, 1943 ~ November 14, 2023 (age 80) 80 Years Old
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On the morning of November 14, 2023, Helene Patricia (Murphy) Jennings, 80, of Olney, Maryland passed away at Montgomery Hospice's Casey House, where her husband Bob also passed away in June. Despite an 8-year struggle with radiation-induced sarcoma, in her final days she reflected often on her “lucky life.”
This lucky life began in 1943, in Jersey City, New Jersey where she was born to John and Dorothy (Bingham) Murphy. Growing up in Weehawken, she was lucky to be part of a large extended Bingham family who gathered frequently at their shared house on Dodd Street.
Luck brought her to Indonesia as a child where her father ran the motor pool for an energy company in the jungle outside Jakarta. She was notorious for pinching gin from the officers’ club to pickle a snake's head and she had the good fortune to encounter an elephant carcass that "smelled like peanut butter."
Her parents eventually divorced and when her mother remarried, she moved to the Los Angeles area in her senior year of high school. While not seemingly lucky on its face, the move to California and a savvy guidance counselor helped open the possibility of college to her. She was lucky to receive a scholarship to Occidental College to pursue her undergraduate degree.
While at Oxy, she was lucky to make life-long friends at the Alpha sorority, to study abroad in Mexico, and to meet Bob Jennings, who himself would be lucky enough to become her husband in 1966. Her luck, plus a load of intellect and hard work, also earned her a Fulbright scholarship upon graduation, which brought her to Chile and Argentina to study street movements in Latin American politics.
Upon returning to the U.S., she was lucky to have her plans to attend graduate school at Stanford University align geographically with Bob securing a job at the nearby NASA Ames Research Lab. When Bob went back to school to obtain a Ph.D. in Physics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, providence resulted in a last-minute position at Hanover High School when, days before school was due to start, the history teacher refused to pledge allegiance to America amid the Vietnam War. This job would support her and Bob until he completed his studies and the stars aligned to have colleagues connect them to the University of São Paulo, Brazil for Bob's post-doctoral research.
In Brazil, Helene was lucky to travel the country, learn the language, and become a mother to daughter Alicia. The three moved back to Madison, Wisconsin and then on to Olney, Maryland where they were blessed with the addition of Megan to complete their family of four.
Helene always felt lucky to live in a tight-knit community like Olney and worked tirelessly to improve open space and zoning, schools, and community spirit – testifying to the school board and planning commission, strategizing with community activists, and lending her organizing expertise to political campaigns. She loved her home in Williamsburg Village with its large plot, backyard vineyard, and streets lined with cherry blossoms.
As her children grew, Helene forged a meaningful career at Macro International (now ICF) doing program evaluation and consulting for a varied roster of clients with a mission-driven outlook, including public television, education, and government social services. It was her good fortune that her work was fulfilling and also scratched her travel itch, taking her all over the United States as well as Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
She would eagerly tell anyone who would listen that one of her luckiest roles of all was that of “Nana” to her grandchildren Jack and Annie. Proximity to them meant frequent cooking projects, outings in nature, sleepovers, adventures, trips, and endless hours of games, puzzles and make-believe. She was blessed to be actively engaged in their growth and development and to be in close relationship with them.
Anyone who knew Helene knew this “lucky life” didn’t just happen – she made it happen. She was hard-working, strategic, intentional, tenacious, and whip-smart. She not only seized opportunities, she created them for herself and those she loved, and was proud to have instilled this ethos in her daughters.
She is preceded in death by her husband of 56 years, Robert “Bob” Jennings, her father John “Jack” Murphy, mother Dorothy Lake, and sister Kathleen Murphy-Sullivan. She is survived by her daughters Alicia Jennings (Michael Mershon) of Bethesda, MD and Megan Jennings (Erik Stamm) of San Diego, CA, grandchildren Jack and Annie Mershon, a nephew, and many loving cousins.
A memorial service will be held in the spring, when (with any luck) the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Those wishing to honor Helene can do so by making a donation to Montgomery Hospice’s Casey House which not only cared so thoughtfully for her husband, but also allowed her the space for calm reflection she craved in her final days.