Helen Nickum, who worked 18 years as a secretary for Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757, died March 29 at the age of 87.
Nickum was born to a union family in Portland in 1928. Her father was a union ironworker who built bridges and dams, and her uncle, Earl “Big Mac” McLenahan, was a Painters Union business agent. After graduating from Jefferson High School in 1945, Nickum got a job in the Portland shipyard as a secretary for the son of local ship and steel magnate Henry Kaiser.
She remained a secretary all her life, though the requirements changed over the course of 61 years. From dictation and ditto machines to faxes and photocopiers, she stuck with the profession, learning over a dozen word processing programs dating from the dawn of the personal computer. She studied business and mathematics at University of Oregon in the late 1940s, and later earned a bachelor’s degree in secretarial science at Oregon State College in 1950.
She then worked as a legal secretary for the Portland law firm Davidson & Nikoloric, and became active in the Democratic Party as a precinct committee-person, volunteering for Adlai Stevenson’s unsuccessful presidential campaigns, and for the successful campaign of Richard Neuberger for U.S. Senate. When Neuberger won, Nickum asked him for a job and was hired. That assignment began nearly two decades of life and work in Washington, D.C., where she worked for Oregon Congresswoman Edith Green and for the Democratic National Committee.
After temping for a secretarial firm, she decided to form her own company. During the 1960s, she and as many as 18 employees did temporary work and printing jobs for government agencies. When race riots consumed neighborhoods in over a dozen cities in 1967, she and her company transcribed the interviews conducted by the government’s investigatory commission. But in 1971, she closed her business, packed her bags and her two cats, and returned to Portland.
She took a job at U.S. Bank, but after three years, left and joined a successful class action gender discrimination lawsuit. She became active with the local women’s movement, and with groups like Common Cause and Friends of the Columbia Gorge. Finally, after a seven-year stint at CH2M Hill, she was hired at ATU in August 1987, working first for financial secretary-treasurer Tony Bryant and then, for many years, for Ron Heintzman.
At Local 757, Nickum was a member of Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 11. She retired in March 2006 with a union pension and health benefits.
In retirement, she volunteered for the Oregon Historical Society, and transcribed 267 hours of recorded interviews for the Oregon Labor Oral History Program of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association. In 2011, she was interviewed, herself, for the project. In the transcript, available here, she talks about her life and work in Washington DC and Portland.
On March 27, on a field trip at Maryhill Museum, she fell on some stairs and hit her head, and lost consciousness. She was life-flighted to Emanuel hospital, but never regained consciousness, and died two days later.
She is survived by nephew Phil Rudolph, a retired TriMet bus operator, his wife Becky Thompson, and grandnieces Sara Rudolph and Liz Kinniman, all of Portland; as well as a cousin, Rossanne Williams, of Toronto.