Compassion, sense of humor kept nurse going

Monday, September 17, 2012 | 6:03 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Helen Girard always let lots of stray cats stay in her house. As a wife and mother of three, Ms. Girard's love of stray cats didn't come from a need for company.

It was a product of her compassion, said her daughter, Laura Crouch.

The cats would come and go. They would be run over by cars, killed in fights with other cats, or they would just run away.

Ms. Girard would give them simple names, such as "Tannie" or "Fluffy." When one of them disappeared, she would give its name to the next cat.

Crouch believes that Ms. Girard's acceptance of the cats' transience reflected her attitude toward life and death.

"She accepted the cycle of life and death. She never feared death because she was always preparing for the next journey, with faith and good works," Crouch said.

Ms. Girard of Columbia died Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. She was 95.

Ms. Girard was the daughter of Nicholas and Barbara (Keller) Leiterman, German immigrants who settled in Pensacola, Fla., in the first decade of the 20th century. Born on Nov. 23, 1916, she grew up in a large German community, learning English as a second language when she started Catholic school.

In the 1920s, Ms. Girard's father opened a grocery store, which provided the family with a relatively comfortable lifestyle during the Depression.

"They didn't have any money, but they had a roof over their heads and food," Crouch said.

Ms. Girard's father helped struggling families by allowing them to barter for groceries. Working alongside her father, Ms. Girard learned the value of compassion, Crouch said.

She learned the value of hard work during summer breaks from school, when she helped her grandmother operate a farm, picking potatoes by hand and plowing with draft horses.

As she grew older, Ms. Girard became curious about the world outside her rural southern town. After graduating high school, she and an aunt took a train to Chicago to "see the world," Crouch said. She found a job as a nanny, which led to her decision to become a nurse.

"For a young woman, being a nurse was a way to see the world," Crouch said.

After the United States' entry into World War II, Ms. Girard enlisted in the army, serving as a lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

She treated men with relatively minor afflictions such as foot infections from ill-fitting boots, appendicitis, the mumps and chickenpox.

That doesn't mean she wasn't jarred by the war. Ms. Girard once told Crouch about how saddened she felt when she overheard German prisoners of war talking about how all they wanted was for the war to be over so they could go home to their families. She also felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of American servicemen needing care.

"It hurt her deeply. How do you take individual care of so many soldiers?" Crouch said.

At Camp Shelby, she met her husband, Ted Girard, an army captain, on a blind date. They were engaged after Mr. Girard returned safely from his service in Europe. The two were married in Pensacola, Fla. in 1946. After the wedding, Mrs. Girard and her husband moved to his hometown of Joliet, Ill.

Mrs. Girard worked as a homemaker for 10 years to raise her three children before returning to nursing to supplement her husband's income as a carpenter. She worked as a nurse for more than three decades.

"She loved every minute of making people well," Crouch said. She followed her mother's example and became a nurse herself.

After retiring at age 70, Mrs. Girard found time for art, painting on canvas and china.

"She said, 'I didn't know I had it in me.' She worked so hard all her life, she never had time to develop anything for herself," Crouch said. Mrs. Girard was forced to give up her new hobby when her hands became too unsteady in her 80s.

In 1995, Mrs. Girard and her husband moved to Columbia to be closer to Crouch, who was worried about her parents' declining health.

Thanks to her training as a registered nurse, Crouch knew that her mother was nearing the end of her life when she began having trouble swallowing and coughing. Crouch thinks that her mother, her nursing mentor, must have known it, too.

"She knew it was a process she had to go through. I never saw fear in her face," Crouch said.

Mrs. Girard soon caught pneumonia. A devout Catholic, Mrs. Girard received her last rites three weeks ago.

The Rev. Herb Hayek of Sacred Heart Catholic Church visited her at her home. With her son and two daughters in attendance, he anointed Mrs. Girard. They held hands and said the "Our Father" as part of the rite.

"She was very calm, very peaceful," Hayek said. She thanked him when he left.

Mrs. Girard is survived by daughter Laura Crouch and her husband, John, of Columbia; son Stephen Girard and his wife, Pamela, of Kansas City; daughter Christine Gornik and her husband, Dennis, of Kentwood, Mich.; two grandchildren, Jana Crouch of Columbia and Nicholas Crouch of St. Augustine, Fla.; and several nieces and nephews.

Mrs. Girard's two brothers, William and Herman, died earlier.

Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, with interment to follow in Memorial Park Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be sent to True North of Columbia Inc., P.O. Box 1367, Columbia, MO 65205, or online at

Condolences can be posted at

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