Dedicated mother worked hard for family

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 9:25 p.m.

As a postal carrier for nearly two decades, Helen Wilhelm walked along endless cracked sidewalks and streets jammed with piles of snow. In frigid cold and blistering heat, she'd often encounter unchained dogs with questionable temperaments.

“She was always determined. She was a good mom. She was good to her boys. She was always a very hardworking person,” said James R. Wilhelm, one of Mrs. Wilhelm's two children and the investigations/projects editor at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Helen M. Pless Wilhelm of Aliquippa, formerly of Coraopolis, died on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, in Heritage Valley Beaver hospital in Brighton. She was 79 and died of respiratory problems.

The youngest of eight children of the late Herminia Johannes and George Pless, Mrs. Wilhelm was born on Jan. 18, 1933, in Searights, Fayette County, a coal mining community.

“We grew up pretty much country-style and moved around a lot,” said Adam Pless of Ambridge, Mrs. Wilhelm's older brother.

Their father was a stable boss, who managed horses that went into coal mines. Their mother died when Mrs. Wilhelm was 7, which left her older sister, Catherine Barna, in charge of raising two younger siblings.

“We were a lot of work for our older sister — cooking, making sure we got to school,” said Pless, who was 10 when his mother died.

After graduating from Redstone High School in Republic, Mrs. Wilhelm — like many of her relatives — headed to Beaver County, then a thriving area of heavy manufacturing.

She met her husband, James S. Wilhelm, while working in the tin mill at the Jones & Laughlin Steel plant in Aliquippa. The two wed on March 1, 1954, in St. Titus Roman Catholic Church in Aliquippa and were married for 47 years until his death in March 2001.

In the early years of their marriage, the Wilhelms worked different shifts at the plant, while grandparents often looked after the couple's two children.

Eventually, Mrs. Wilhelm took a job with more flexible hours, working as a waitress in the coffee shop at the old Pittsburgh International Airport.

Occasionally, she'd serve well- known people like the fabled 1960s Pirates players. One day, she brought her boys a baseball autographed with names like Clemente and Mazeroski.

Several years later — when her son and friends wanted to play baseball and could find no other ball — they played with the autographed one.

“That was the end of that ball. My mother was disappointed. Dad was really angry, probably because he knew how much that baseball would be worth,” James Wilhelm said.

In 1966, Mrs. Wilhelm started a career with the Postal Service that would last for more than 20 years. She spent 17 of them as a letter carrier, working on foot.

In addition to her son James and brother, Adam, Mrs. Wilhelm is survived by another son, Thomas R. Wilhelm of Aliquippa, and a sister, Catherine Barna of Leetsdale, as well as two granddaughters, Kathryn Wilhelm of Boston and Sarah Wilhelm of Perrysburg, Ohio.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday in Tatalovich Funeral Home, 2205 McMinn St., Aliquippa. A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. Friday in St. Titus Roman Catholic Church, 952 Franklin Ave., Aliquippa, followed by burial in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Hopewell Township.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to St. Titus Roman Catholic Church, the American Cancer Society or the Alzheimer's Association of America.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at

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