The present LPI Director, David Black, said of her retirement, "It is natural when coming to the close of a career to ask whether you have made a difference. The answer in Helene's case is a ringing 'yes!' Throughout the nearly quarter-century that she has worked at the Institute, she has served as mother- confessor for many of the staff, chief advisor and sounding board for Directors, and a repository of knowledge and wisdom for the entire USRA family.
"Her actions and dedication to her work, to the people with whom she works, to the Institute, and to the planetary science community is a model for others to emulate. It is, however, a standard that will be difficult to attain. Few will ever really know the many ways in which Helene's career has touched their lives in a positive way. I only hope that she realizes as she prepares to embark on the next phase of her life that she has indeed made a difference."
Thorson's career spans 37 years of technical and administrative work at LPI and other research institutions, first at Yerkes Observatory and the Departments of Astronomy and Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, and later at the Planetary Sciences Division of the Kitt Peak National Observatory. The route she followed was not an obvious one, however, for Helene has led something of a double life.
From elementary school through her high school years in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, she was known for her musical talent, both as a trumpeter in the band, and especially as a state champion vocalist who was much in demand for concerts and recitals. "All of my family was musical. We could just about have our own band or chorus at home," she recalls.
It surprised no one when she chose to attend Bradley University in Peoria, known for its Opera Workshop in which students participate in all aspects of opera production, from set design and construction to performance. Majoring in music with a minor in English, Thorson intended to make music her career.
After college, she was drawn to New York city, the magnet for serious musicians, where she continued to study voice. Later, after experiencing firsthand the rat race and comparing notes with friends at Juilliard on the compromises required to pursue a professional singing career, Thorson decided to return to the Midwest, and there began the second thread of her double life.
She took a job working for Dr. Joseph W. Chamberlain at the Yerkes Observatory and became involved in assisting in a research project on the aurora borealis. "Learning to value these things--like looking at stars--was a learning curve for me. I came from a background where all the family worked at 'real' jobs from an early age. But working on the aurora archives, I became fascinated. Then I realized what it was--it was like music--it was something that simply had to be done! And it's been science ever since."
The aurora work resulted in a publication with Chamberlain, and Helene found that she enjoyed editing papers and book galleys. Other jobs followed from the Yerkes experience. Today, Thorson says, "I never dreamed that I'd be a secretary and all the rest that followed from that. They used to say, 'Whatever you do, young women, get a background in business skills.' Well, I didn't. I've had to train myself for a business and technical career."
Of her years working with astronomers, geophysicists, geologists, and planetary scientists, she recalls mischieviously, "One of the things that was the most fun--I noticed that there were and continue to be distinct differences in the kinds of people in each field, even to their drinking habits! But I'm not going to reveal those particular habits!"
From time to time, Thorson explored jobs outside the research field to satisfy her curiosity and to try something different. She recalls a year spent working for a major Chicago patent law office that served the meatpacking industry, "Totally corrupt, really cutthroat! I saw a completely different side of life. I was happy to get back to the research environment." But she feels it's important to have a look outside one's familiar world from time to time. "I advise anyone to do so when feeling dissatisfied with one's job."
During the '70s, as she began the LPI phase of her career, Thorson continued to sing with the Bay Area Chorus, a well- known regional chorus in the Houston area. "I increasingly appreciate how mathematical music is," she says of the science and music threads that have been interwoven through her life.
Of her decision to retire, she says, "It's time to stop and smell the gardenias. Music is still my life. I would rather listen to a symphony than eat. That's what retirement will be about."