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Helen Clowney, a Philadelphia block captain for 50 years who was active in her church and community, dies at 94

Helen Clowney, a 50-year block captain for the 2200 block of N. Woodstock, a dedicated youth leader at her Catholic Churches and a community advocate, died Sept. 23 at age 94.

Helen Clowney, who was block captain for the 2200 block of N. Woodstock for 50 years, a dedicated youth leader at her Catholic Church and a community advocate, died Sept. 23 at age 94.
Helen Clowney, who was block captain for the 2200 block of N. Woodstock for 50 years, a dedicated youth leader at her Catholic Church and a community advocate, died Sept. 23 at age 94.Read moreCourtesy of the Clowney family

Helen Clowney, 94, who served as the block captain for the 2200 block of North Woodstock Street in Philadelphia for 50 years and worked with youth groups at her church, died Sept. 23 during a temporary stay at a nursing rehab health-care center in Roslyn.

Mrs. Clowney had lived on the Woodstock Street block since birth until moving five years ago to live with her daughter and son-in-law in West Oak Lane, said her granddaughter, Jamilah Leonard.

Mrs. Clowney took pride in being a block captain and organized cleanups, curb-paintings, and plantings of flowers and trees there.

She was particularly known for the annual Memorial Day block parties she planned. She also represented her neighbors in meetings with city and state officials to ask for better city services.

“She worked with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to get cherry blossom and magnolia trees planted on the block,” Leonard said. She was happy when her street won clean block and greenery awards.

Mrs. Clowney was honored in 2014 by the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee of the Streets Department when she retired after 50 years of service.

“Many politicians like [City Council President] Darrell Clarke, [former Sheriff] Jewell Williams, and [State Sen.] Sharif Street came to the retirement party we gave her at her church,” Leonard said.

In a 2014 Inquirer story about Mrs. Clowney’s years of service, Bernice Hines said the block captain would blow a whistle to call out neighbors for various projects. “She used the whistle to say: ‘All you lazy birds, get out here. You’re a part of this block. Show your commitment to it,’” Hines said.

Mrs. Clowney was born Nov. 9, 1926, the only child of Edward Morgan and Isabelle Reaves Morgan. Her father was a Pullman porter on the railroad and her mother was a homemaker.

She was an outgoing young woman who enjoyed poetry, cooking, traveling, and mentoring young people.

At the Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she graduated in January 1945, her favorite subject was French.

Because she had been an unexpected child born late in her parents’ lives, Mrs. Clowney sacrificed any career plans she might have had to take care of her elderly parents, Leonard said.

After high school, she held a number of clerical and factory positions and was often recognized for her high productivity and quickly advanced to supervisory roles.

In 1947, she married James Clowney, a World War II veteran she had met through a family friend. The couple had one child in a marriage that lasted 42 years, until her husband’s death in 1989.

Mrs. Clowney was a devout Christian who, since childhood, was a member of St. Elizabeth Roman Catholic Church, at 23rd and Berks. It was there that she first became a Catholic Youth Organization adviser, responsible for planning activities and church trips for the children and teenagers.

After St. Elizabeth’s closed, she joined St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church and continued her role as an adviser with the CYO.

Jacqueline Wiggins, a retired Philadelphia schoolteacher and historian, said she had known Mrs. Clowney since her own childhood.

“She has been a most loving and caring person for what seemed like forever,” Wiggins said.

In retirement, Mrs. Clowney was active at the Martin Luther King Older Adult Center, where she was a member of the MLK Center Advisory Council, president of the Secret Pal Club, and a leader of the poetry club. She also loved to participate in the Silver Sneakers Exercise and line dancing clubs.

Wiggins said that both before and after retirement, Mrs. Clowney was a member of social clubs and organized trips to New York to see Broadway shows as well as to other cities. Leonard, Mrs. Clowney’s granddaughter, remembers that once she organized a trip by train and bus to Canada. She often took children from her block on those trips.

Mrs. Clowney loved to attend parties at the Carousel House in Fairmount Park, Wiggins said, “where she could line-dance, especially the Baltimore [dance], better than anyone.”

In addition to her granddaughter, Mrs. Clowney is survived by her daughter, Dolores Leonard; son-in-law, Anthony Leonard; and scores of other relatives, friends, and church members.

A funeral was held Oct. 2.