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Helen Piszek Nelson, philanthropist, advocate, and business leader, dies at 69

The daughter of a cofounder of Mrs. Paul's Kitchens, she created dynamic educational and social partnerships between groups in the United States and Poland.

Mrs. Nelson loved to travel, and spent many days in Key Largo, Fla.; Italy; Poland; and elsewhere.
Mrs. Nelson loved to travel, and spent many days in Key Largo, Fla.; Italy; Poland; and elsewhere.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Helen Piszek Nelson, 69, of Worcester, an international philanthropist, education advocate, and business leader, died Saturday, Oct. 9, of cancer at home at Meadowood Senior Living retirement community.

Mrs. Nelson was the daughter of Edward Piszek, the cofounder in 1946 of Mrs. Paul’s Kitchens, and she inherited her father’s business acumen and generous nature. She worked with him for a time, overseeing the company’s test kitchen, and serving as vice president of the Copernicus Society of America, a private family foundation he established to celebrate Polish heritage and promote Polish-American relations.

Later, after she and her family traveled to Poland and elsewhere, she created financial endowments for exchange-student programs at Delaware Valley and Gwynedd Mercy Universities, and Dickinson College. She also funded educational projects at Germantown Academy, the Community Partnership School in Philadelphia, and Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland.

At the Community Partnership School, she helped create the school’s Edward and Olga Piszek Library, named in honor of her parents, and stocked the shelves with books.

After her father’s death in 2004, Mrs. Nelson became president and chief executive officer of the Copernicus Society, and received awards from Poland’s Commission of National Education, and Jagiellonian and Podlasie Universities for subsidizing and encouraging educational relationships between Poland and the United States.

Over the years, she met or worked with Pope John Paul II, author James Michener, former President Richard Nixon, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and other religious, educational, and political notables. She attended both inaugurations of former President Ronald Reagan.

“Dad showed all of us that we can all pay it forward, one way or another” Mrs. Nelson said in a 2020 article on the Dickinson College website. “One person can really make a difference in the world.”

Her husband of 48 years, Erik Nelson, called her “an instigator and driving force” for good.

“She was caring and nurturing,” he said, “and it was natural for her to help people.”

Mrs. Nelson graduated from Germantown Academy in 1970, and in 1990 was the first woman to receive the school’s outstanding alumni award. A tribute on the school’s website notes her “generosity and positive outlook” and “continuous commitment to community spirit and the greater good.”

Born Aug. 8, 1952, in Norristown, Mrs. Nelson lived in Fort Washington for 50 years before moving to Lansdale. She met her husband at a party while they both attended Albright College. They married in 1973, and raised daughters Elizabeth and Julia, and son John.

She left Albright after two years but enrolled at Gwynedd Mercy years later and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1993. She volunteered, and supported the Ambler Theater, Rodale Institute, Pearl S. Buck International nonprofit, and other groups.

Mrs. Nelson liked to travel, play golf, read novels, and sit quietly with her dogs, Sophie and Bella. She spoke often to students and others about the value of education, travel, and community outreach.

Unassuming about her philanthropy, she gave anonymous gifts to friends, and considered herself “an everyday person,” her husband said.

“She was a great giver,” her husband said. He recalled meeting her in college, and noticing her compassionate personality right away. “Once I talked to her, it was love at first sight,” he said.

In addition to her husband, and children, Mrs. Nelson is survived by two grandchildren, and three brothers. A sister died earlier.

Services were held Oct. 15.

Donations in her name may be made to the Asplundh Cancer Pavilion, c/o Amy Buick, 3941 Commerce Ave., Willow Grove, Pa., 19090, and the Community Partnership School, c/o Advancement Office, 3033 West Glenwood Ave., Philadelphia, Pa., 19121.