OBITUARY: Helen Janet Caswell

Helen Janet Caswell was born on March 30, 1956, and passed away at her home in Salem, Oregon, on August 9, 2023, after a five-year battle with non-small-cell lung cancer.

A gifted and creative writer, artist, filmmaker, daughter, sister, niece, cousin, aunt and friend, Helen was also deeply dedicated to social justice, animal rights and environmental protection. She loved this world deeply and left her mark on it in so many ways.

The second child of Earl and Marydee (nee Killen) Caswell, Helen was born in and lived her first eight years in Ceres, California, where her great-grandfather, Thomas Caswell, had prospered as a prominent early farmer, landowner, inventor and leading citizen. The Caswell name is associated with a school and street in Ceres, along with Caswell State Park, which was created along the Stanislaus River from land purchased by Thomas Caswell in the early 1900s and donated to the State of California by his descendants in 1950.

At the age of eight, Helen’s parents moved six miles west of Ceres to the family’s ranch along the banks of the Tuolumne River in Modesto, where Helen and her brother, Tom, spent their youth, attending Fairview Grammar School, Mark Twain Junior High and Modesto High School. Helen’s gift for words was recognized at a young age and she wrote for the high school literary magazine, excelled on the MHS Debate Team and was one of two student speakers at her 1974 high school graduation, where she dispatched with the usual “Go out and conquer the world” speech and instead urged her fellow graduates to “Always Be Kind” – a motto by which she continued to live her life in numerous gracious and thoughtful ways and, as a result, was loved and admired by many.

 After high school, Helen attended Modesto Junior College, U.C. Berkeley and graduated from San Francisco State with a Bachelor of Arts in Film in 1983. She lived more than two decades in San Francisco and Oakland, where she forged lasting friendships through her management positions at the renowned Adolph Gasser Photography store and through the many film and screenwriting projects that she undertook in the 1980s. One of her independent films was awarded a grant from the American Film Institute as well as a Western States Grant for independent Filmmaking.   Several of her films are now archived at the Niles Film Museum in Fremont, California.

As an outgrowth of her love of animals, particularly birds of all feathers, Helen also became an entrepreneur, successfully co-founding and running a mail-order bird supply company in the 1990s and early 2000s with her life-long friend, Larry Nelson.

In 2008, Helen relocated to Salem, Oregon, leveraging her writing and research skills to become a legal private investigator, working with numerous defense attorneys in the Salem area, as well as a writer and photographer for the Salem Weekly and later the Salem Reporter, collaborating with other talented individuals to produce excellent investigative articles on city and community matters.

She also continued to write short stories and novels, several of which were published.  She used her fabulous sense of color and artistry to create a beautiful home and garden that were admired and enjoyed by many guests. Helen also became involved in local progressive and social justice organizations in Marion County where she worked tirelessly on voter registration and grassroots campaigns for local and statewide candidates as well as contributing her well-known homemade pies to many a fun social event. Helen was known by her friends as the “Pie Queen of Salem” for her efforts to improve morale during the Covid-19 isolation. She was so fierce in her commitment to an equitable justice system that she worked passionately toward that end up to the last weeks of her life.

Helen was preceded in death by her parents, Earl and Marydee. She is survived by her brother, Tom Caswell, his wife, Gemma and their son, James, of Modesto; her close friend, Mark Wigg, of Salem; and many loving cousins and devoted friends.

A Celebration of Helen’s life was held on August 31, 2023, in her home. She donated her body to Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) for research, continuing her legacy of service to others.

Helen J. Caswell
Helen J. Caswell

–Submitted information

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