Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States and Luis Muñoz Marín Governor of Puerto Rico. I was fifteen and a high school student in New York City. Gas was $.33/gallon and the federal wage was $1.40 an hour. John McCain was shot down in Vietnam and the first heart transplant was performed in South Africa. The year was 1967 and Helena Roehrs and Mica Kubicek established the Arecibo Book Club in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Helena and Mica stated their purpose in the By-Laws “… to provide books for its members, to encourage active participation in the discussion of books and to enjoy the social ambience” and that’s just what they did for the many English speaking women in the area. At a time when Puerto Rico had factories and businesses with mainland employers and scientists at the Observatory from all over the world, many of their wives were isolated in a “foreign” situation and in need of camaraderie. Books in English were hard to find so the Book Selection Committee would go through the Book of the Month Club, Literary Guild and other book clubs to order books. There were so many women who wanted to join the Club that a maximum of 35 was established with a waiting list.
The Arecibo Book Club is a book club like no other. It’s an ambulatory library stored in milk crates and moved from house to house. New books are bought and presented monthly to be checked out by the members. The last Thursday of each month we meet over lunch and “talk books.” No one reads the same book; the group doesn’t discuss a specific book. We read books and we talk (and we eat). So if you’re in Arecibo on the last Thursday of the month (except July and November), get in touch and be my guest at an Arecibo Book Club meeting.
This was going to be my introduction to our 53rd anniversary luncheon on March 26, 2020, but we’re not going to have our luncheon, at least not on that date, because Puerto Rico is in “lockdown” or self-quarantine for the Covid-19 virus.
The news of the lock-down came at the same time as the news of the passing of Helena Roehrs, one of the founders, and so it is with a heavy heart I bid farewell to a woman who was ahead of her time.
I wrote to Helena’s nephew sending my condolences and saying I wanted to write about Helena in my blog. Anyone who knew her, knew how vehemently she disapproved of social media and although she encouraged my writing, I didn’t want to offend her (even in death) for posting a tribute to her. Alan said to go ahead and wrote this about Helena,“Although she was born in Philadelphia, she thought of Puerto Rico as her home through and through. Very devoted to the island. She loved meeting people and making friends. And she loved plants and horticulture. She could walk around her home and know the name of all the flora that grew there. The Arecibo Book Club grew out of her desire to meet and get to know other women who were looking to expand their social horizons, especially looking for more english speaking friends. But all in all, Helena was a Puerto Rican by love and never wanted to leave.”
Helena was a guiding force for me and many others in the club. She was a businesswoman who stuck to the rules, had an opinion about almost everything and a great sense of humor. She had an ability to see the potential in people and help them reach it. Here’s to you, Helena…..the Club would never have survived 53 years (and counting) without your leadership. Hurricane Maria may have sent you off the island, but the Arecibo Book Club keeps you close by. You will be missed, but never forgotten.