In her own right, Helen Kapke was a remarkable woman. Good natured, strong willed and the tenacity to go along with it, Helen knew no limits when reaching for something she believed in. She was someone with whom others could rely, was always helpful and a good listener, especially in the lives of her sons. A big hearted gal with a fun-loving spirit, there was no one quite like “Ma”. Deeply missed, she will be affectionately remembered in the hearts of many.
From the world of fashion to the world to politics, forces clashed in the 1920s to produce one of the most explosive decades of the century. An age of prohibition, prosperity followed many new advancements, discoveries, and inventions of the day which greatly improved the American way of life. A sense of gaiety filled the air as the infamous Roaring Twenties challenged America’s once conservative nature. It was during these changing times in the quaint riverfront city of Burlington, Wisconsin when Orville and Stella (Johnson) Perry, anticipating the arrival of their first child, welcomed the birth of their daughter, Helen May on December 29, 1921.
The oldest of five children, Helen grew up with younger sisters, Lucy and Edith, and younger brothers, Wilbur and Richard. Her parents were hardworking farmers in the Burlington and Waterford area where Helen learned early on the value of hard work. They each pitched in with chores around the farm, often times even before setting out for school. There were fun times she shared on the farm as well during her childhood where fond adventures made for wonderful stories and memories.
When difficult times plagued the nation with the effects of the Great Depression, Helen and her family found no exception as they too struggled through these times of hardship. A one room schoolhouse provided Helen with her early education, but like many young people her age during this time, her education ended in the eighth grade.
As a young woman in her early twenties, Helen began working for the Brunswick Corporation. While working there she not only became a member of the Brunswick bowling team, but was part of the first women’s team to have won a championship. She thoroughly enjoyed bowling and it was a good social outlet. Helen went on to enjoy the sport for 60 years until she was 81 years old! She often bowled at Bay View Bowl where she was a member of the Class Reunion Saturday Mixed Doubles League and even served as the secretary there in her later years.
The Bay View area became the meeting place where Helen eventually met her future husband, Kenneth Kapke. They married in 1954 and made Bay View their home where together they operated the Big Beer Bar on Kinnickinnic Avenue and Ward. Although their marriage later ended in divorce, Helen was forever grateful for the children blessed from their union. Her three sons were everything to Helen. Kenneth was born in January of 1955, and Keith came along 11 months later in December of 1955. Kurth completed her family in August of 1958.
A strong willed woman, Helen selflessly gave of herself and as “the best mom” ever, nothing could keep her from providing for her sons. The Big Beer Bar was the first of eventually four taverns Helen would come to operate. As a single mother with three young sons to support, she applied for her own tavern license. In her petition to the city common council, she stated that if she was not granted the license to operate Helen’s Bright Spot on Lincoln Avenue and Ward Street, she and her children would need to go on welfare. With perseverance, Helen went on to become the first woman in Milwaukee to be issued a license to operate a tavern, previously only granted to men.
Through her ownership of the tavern Helen taught her boys a good, solid work ethic with chores around the tavern like stocking and cleaning. Helen was a loving mother and provided them with wonderful life experiences, too. She took the boys fishing, camping and spent fun-filled, memorable two week vacations at Whippoorwill Lodge in Townsend, Wisconsin. She was involved and attentive in their lives, even if it meant piling her son’s basketball team in her “little red Rambler station wagon” to transport them to basketball games or her son’s junior bowling leagues.
Never one to sit still, Helen kept herself busy and active. In between acquiring her third and fourth tavern she worked for Blunt, Ellis and Lowie Company as an internal auditor, a position she was very proud to have held for 17 years before retiring. The two other taverns she acquired were, The Blind Pig on 6th and Maple and Bruno’s located on 25th and Mitchell. For over 57 years she operated her taverns and came to be affectionately known as “Ma”. She was sure to be the one calling out, “Last call!” before closing time each night at 2:00 AM. She was also a staunch supporter of locals teams. From baseball to softball, bowling teams and pool leagues, Helen’s taverns sponsored the community faithfully in this way. She herself enjoyed playing cribbage and sheepshead, and often entered tournaments.
Along with card playing she also enjoyed reading. For a time she was an Avon lady, and in an effort to demonstrate the array of nail polishes to her customers, she often painted her own fingernails as a display of ten different colors! When it came to television she enjoyed watching sports and kept up with the news while enjoying a good glass of brandy and water, her drink of choice. Helen always said the sugar in soda gives a mean hangover.
Helen remained involved in her son’s lives even as they grew to have families of their own. As a grandmother, she loved her granddaughters dearly. When a fall at home in 2002 severely fractured her right arm, Helen had to eventually stop working at the tavern because it never healed properly and in time began living with her son. Although it was quite a transition for a strong willed and self-sufficient woman like Helen, she enjoyed the time spent with her family and friends, often visiting or playing their mini-cribbage tournaments at her home.
On Friday, March 25, 2011 Helen entered St. Luke’s Medical Center with abdominal issues and sadly never recovered. At 2:25 AM on Sunday, March 27, 2011, Helen M. “Ma” Kapke died at the age of 89 after her final, “Last call”. Fondly remembered, she will be sorely missed by all who knew and loved her.
Helen was the cherished mother of Kenneth (Kim), Keith “Bruno” and Kurth (Ronnie) Kapke; loving grandmother of MacKenzie and Jessica; and is further survived by her nephews, other relatives and friends. Everyone is invited for “Last call” on Friday, April 1, 2011, 11:00 AM to visit with her family at the funeral home until the time of the funeral service at 1:00 PM. Interment Woodlawn Cemetery. Please submit a favorite memory, photo or to sign her online guest book. Helen’s family is being served by the Suminski Family Funeral Homes, Niemann/Suminski, 2486 S. Kinnickinnic Avenue 414-744-5156.
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