'Armless girl' to speak in Brewster

BREWSTER --When Helen McNab Baughn was growing up in the Brewster area, nobody made a big deal about her disability. "I was just Helen," she recalled. "As far as I know, they just accepted me as another person." But there was one thing that disti...

The Feb. 10, 1952, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune Picture Magazine featured Helen McNab, then 17 years old, and the letter she'd written to another armless girl in Ohio. The cover photo was of her painting figurines with her feet.

BREWSTER --When Helen McNab Baughn was growing up in the Brewster area, nobody made a big deal about her disability.

"I was just Helen," she recalled. "As far as I know, they just accepted me as another person."

But there was one thing that distinguished Helen from everybody else -- she didn't have arms. She was born that way, and with a few other initial complications as well.

"I had been born with a birthmark that covered my nose, mouth chin," she explained, later adding that the birthmark gradually faded. "I had emergency hernia surgery at 3 months old. When I was born, my right foot was also turned back, almost touching my ankle. I was baptized shortly after my birth, because, with all those defects, they thought possibly something was wrong inside, too."

But Helen survived and thrived in the small-town atmosphere of Brewster. She lived a normal childhood, and accommodations were made, when necessary, for her lack of arms.


"Thank goodness they did not have special ed back then. In a small community, where everybody knew everybody else, I guess the parents probably told the kids if they teased me they'd get whipped," she said with a laugh.

Helen credits family and faith for giving her a positive outlook on life and not letting her disability inhibit her in any way.

"When I was 3, I guess -- I don't remember the occasion -- I asked my mom why I was born without arms. She told me that God had wanted a little girl without arms, and I had been chosen. So I felt special. I had to do a lot of growing up before I learned I wasn't the only special person in the world, that everyone was special, but I had a good attitude about myself. That made a big difference in my life. Faith in God, too, made a big difference. I know that He gave me all the talents that I had, and I figured I'd better use them."

While Helen didn't cause a sensation among her peers and area townspeople, she did garner some press over the years. The first was when she was just 4 years old -- an article in the then Worthington Globe.

Then, in 1952, she was pictured on the front cover of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune Picture Magazine, painting figurines with her feet. The article inside was titled "An Illustrated Letter from Brewster Minn.: How an Armless Girl Faces Life." It was based on a letter Helen wrote to Joann McCarty, an 11-year-old girl from Columbus, Ohio, who was also armless. Picture sent a photographer to Brewster to get "visual proof of the unbelievable accomplishments Helen mentioned in her letter."

The text of Helen's letter, as printed in Picture, accompanied by photo illustrations of each activity:

I was born without arms. I am 17 years old and a senior in high school. I have a special desk that I received when I came here to Brewster. Before that I went to Okabena and had a table. We are doing leather work. It isn't just the assembling but the tooling. Seniors put out the annual. I was chosen advertising manager and publicity director.

Mother's an excellent seamstress and makes all my blouses, dresses, slacks, suits, even coats.


Some of the things I can do with my feet are: feed myself, wash myself, comb my hair, button my coat, put on scarf, pull an anklets, shoes, turn on fountain, thread a needle.

In the Picture article, Helen indicated an interest in studying journalism, and after graduating with honors from Brewster High School, Helen attended the College of St. Benedict, thanks to a scholarship from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a benefit hosted by the Brewster Chamber of Commerce. But her initial degree was in sociology, and she later went back to school and got a degree in speech pathology. She had one son, Mark.

"When Mark was born in January 1962, the Globe came and took pictures when he was 3 years old -- pictures of me diapering, feeding him, doing all those kinds of things," Helen recalled about another newspaper feature. "I had four older sisters who had kids, so I'd had lots of practice."

Helen is now retired from her speech pathology career, and reading and the computer occupy most of her time. She lives in Mankato and has occasionally done some motivational speaking, particularly for pro-life functions in the 1980s and '90s.

Helen will return to her hometown June 13 to speak at a special event sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of Brewster. A pork loin dinner will be served from 11:30 to 1 p.m. at the Brewster American Legion Hall, and Helen will speak on "What Is Quality of Life?" and relate some of her life experiences.

Tickets will be sold at the door but can also be purchased in advance by sending $8 for adults and $5 for children 8 and younger to First Presbyterian Church, Box 121, Brewster 56119. For more information, contact Jim Naumann at Brewster City Hall, (507) 842-5936.

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