Missouri State University - West Plains

Student Success Story: Helen Mackey

Missouri State-West Plains Student Success Story

New Beginnings … Endless Possibilities

Helen Mackey

Helen MackeyYou’re never too old to learn new things or try something new. Just ask Helen Mackey of Mountain Grove, who is in her third semester of taking classes at Missouri State University-West Plains’ campus in Mountain Grove through the Senior Citizen Fee Waiver Program.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Mackey, at the age of 88, decided to enroll in the university’s Introduction to Psychology (PSY 121) class because of a strong desire to learn “and keep my mind active.”

“I knew that I loved to learn, and if I took a class, it would get me up and about. At my age, that’s very important,” she said. A brief look at her past adventures, though, shows it probably would take a lot to keep this New York native down.

As one of the dwindling members of the Greatest Generation, Mackey served her nation on the home front during World War II as a medic in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), unloading wounded soldiers from hospital ships after they returned to the ports on the east coast.

“It was awful, the number of people they took off the ships and their injuries,” she said of her service. “That stays with me the worst.”

She also dreaded the possibility of having to unload her husband, John Joseph Murphy, or her two brothers who were serving overseas in combat. Like many other women of her time, the war did come home to her in 1945 when she received word her husband, “JJ,” as he liked to be called, had been killed in action in Germany.

Following the war and the death of her husband, she returned to Texas where her great aunt lived and met her second husband, Bernie Mackey of Rockbridge, Mo., through the VA hospital at Fort Sam Houston. The couple married and returned to the Mountain Grove area.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Mackey began a lifetime of involvement in the community, beginning with the formation of a 4-H Club that gained national and international acclaim through its many activities, including a mock presidential election that eventually led to an invitation to Richard Nixon’s first inauguration in January 1969 and the performance of a skit that resulted in an invitation to a dinner with then United Nations President Angie Brooks of Liberia at Southern Illinois University in 1970.

Mackey and her husband also hosted numerous international students and befriended several scientists from other countries who worked at the Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove, which led to a number of overseas trips at the invitation of their new friends. She visited Bulgaria when the nation was still behind the “iron curtain” of the Cold War and in the grips of communistic rule. She traveled to Nepal and India, where she had a moonlit picnic on the Taj Mahal grounds. And, she traveled extensively through various other countries in Europe.

She also traveled extensively in the U.S. competing in the VA Olympics as a swimmer. The competitions, the largest in the world for senior veterans, took her to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Maine and Oklahoma over the years. Her last competitive race was in 1981. “I was fortunate enough to win some gold medals along the way,” she said.

To celebrate her 88th birthday, she went skydiving for the first time. It’s something she’d love to do again, if it wasn’t so expensive, she said. “I’d go again so I could see what I missed the first time,” she explained. She has plans to go scuba diving on her 90th birthday this summer, if her doctors allow her to do so.

Even if she doesn’t, Mackey said she’ll continue taking classes at Missouri State-West Plains’ Mountain Grove campus “as long as I can get around. You never quit learning.”