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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
JOHNSTON, Helen. (Ottumwa, IA, July 1, 1923--Dubuque, IA, Aug. 9, 2016). The oldest child and only daughter of a carpenter and a church secretary, G. Vernon and Pearl (Blackford) Capell, Helen earned a BA in piano performance from Simpson College and a master’s from CLARKE COLLEGE. Helen taught business education at North Fayette Community High School in West Union, Iowa, and after the family moved to Dubuque, taught elementary school at Prescott, Irving, and Marshall, and was a reading specialist in the DUBUQUE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT. (1)

Helen and lifelong piano/organist partner, Ruth Jones, performed countless programs at ST. LUKE'S UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, where Helen was a member for more than fifty years. They expanded to “Forty Flying Fingers” when they added pianists Nancy Woodin and Karen Lull to the program. Helen accompanied the choir at St. Luke’s and played there most recently on July 3, two days after she turned 93. She was an originator of the “Fabulous Fridays” music programs at St. Luke’s and organized a series of programs called “Where Art and Music Meet.” She had also been a member of the JuBELLation Ringers at St. Luke’s. (2)

In addition to performing at church, Helen and Ruth played for many years at the Finley Hospital Auxiliary’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony and at LORAS COLLEGE and the UNIVERSITY OF DUBUQUE. Helen accompanied many musicians in the Artist Series of the Dubuque Arts Council. (3) She began playing for the BARN COMMUNITY THEATER in 1973, the second year of its existence, and by 1985 had played or directed every musical since--19 musicals and eight children's plays, a total of 200 performances. (4) She was the music director for "The Barn" and the GRAND OPERA HOUSE, and was one of the originators of the Dubuque Arboretum’s Sunday afternoon concerts. In 1992 she was the president of the Symphony League and office manager of the GRAND OPERA HOUSE. (5)

In addition to her music, Helen was also an ardent supporter of service projects. She organized the “Seniors Out and About” monthly travel group, served three times as president of the DUBUQUE ARTS COUNCIL, and held every office in PEO Chapter KI. She was a delegate to the DUBUQUE AREA CONGREGATIONS UNITED and a lay member of the United Methodist Annual Conference. She was a member of two bridge clubs at the time of her passing, was a voracious reader, and loved to attend concerts and plays. A director of several "Barn" musicals, Johnston was three-times the president of the DUBUQUE ARTS COUNCIL and She served as a frequent accompanist for the Barn Theater and resident artists. (6)

In recognition of her efforts in support of the arts in Dubuque, Johnston received the Fine Arts Society Award for "Outstanding Contribution to the Arts" and was nominated for the YOUNG WOMEN'S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION (Y.W.C.A.) Women of Achievement Award. (7)



1. "Helen S. Johnston," Dubuque Orbituaries. Telegraph Herald, August 17, 2016. Online.

2. Ibid.

3. Blocker, Sue, "Keeping the Arts Alive," Telegraph Herald, October 28, 1985, p. 2

4. "Helen S. Johnston..."

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.