Reflections on Former Resident Helen Tolnay

By Cameron Dunnavant, a first-year student at Virginia Military Academy

I remember when I first met Helen Tolnay. She was in the second floor dining room of St. Joseph’s Home where my sister, Helen Gray, and I were volunteering. It is actually because of my sister that I went and spoke to this woman on the first night. We were new and didn’t know any of the Residents so when I saw that they had the same first name I used it as a conversation starter. I told Helen about the funny coincidence and that my name was Cameron, to which she replied, “Ohhhh, how nice to meet you Emory,” in a heavy Hungarian accent. She was so small and fragile, I couldn’t help but smile. Another time, as we were leaving, we saw Helen sitting on a bench outside and the two of us decided to join her. We talked for about 45 minutes; I can’t recall the topic of conversation but that may just be because I had trouble understanding her half the time through her accent. Regardless, whenever we would see her wandering about after that, Helen Gray and I would stop and spend some time with her.

She gave us rings she made from acorns. (I still have mine and wore it as a neckerchief slide when I had my Eagle Scout board.) One night, I wandered into the café room and there sat little Mrs. Tolnay. We sat there for well over an hour and talked about politics and world events and how she was dealing with her addiction to bananas. I was surprised at how up to date she was on current events. I don’t really remember the transition, but soon after that it became a regular part of our routine to go visit Helen in her room after we had finished up with our volunteering duties. We would talk and joke and play for almost an hour and a half each night. She would ask us about our lives and tell us about hers. Helen Gray and I would tell her about school, problems we were having, plans for the future. No topic was off limits to this woman, and she often dominated the conversations with her wit.

She was a really great woman. Her life story could have filled volumes and we could never have had enough time with her. She lived through World War II Hungary and the Communist takeover. Much of her European family was killed and because she and her husband were highly educated, they had to flee the country.

People talk about what a kindness Helen Gray and I were doing, taking time out of our day to go visit that woman and that nursing home. What they don’t understand is that it was a kindness she was doing us, by gracing our lives with her presence. Helen Tolnay was a wonderful person, and no one who was privileged to know her will forget that.