Helen Cleary

Obituary of Helen B. Cleary

Helen Birch Cleary, 96 – beloved wife, mother, and grandmother – passed away peacefully at CareOne at East Brunswick Assisted Living in East Brunswick, New Jersey on July 19th, 2021.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey on July 18th, 1925 to William John Birch and Angelus Coffee Birch, Helen grew up in the Town of Princeton and, from her earliest days, was a fantastic athlete and a passionate ballet dancer. After graduating from Princeton High School in 1943, she decided to pursue her passion further by studying at the school of the acclaimed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in New York City under the famed tutelage of Mme. Maria Swoboda. Her love for ballet was a constant in her life, and in 1954, Helen served as the first volunteer teacher for the then-fledgling Princeton Ballet Society, founded by the renowned Audree Estey. Working closely with Ms. Estey, she helped to grow the program from its humble beginnings in a small empty space on Witherspoon Street into what is now known as the American Repertory Ballet, which today is recognized as New Jersey’s preeminent residential ballet company.

In pursuit of another one of her passions – childhood education – Helen graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Trenton State Teachers College (now The College of New Jersey) in 1947, which marked the beginning of a decades-long career as a primary school teacher. After spending a few years at Miss Fine’s School, she then entered the Princeton, New Jersey public school system and served on the faculty of the Nassau Street, Community Park, John Witherspoon and Johnson Park schools. It was in the classroom that Helen was most at home – where her unmatched creativity, wit, and love for the students she taught were always on full display. Unquestionably, Helen was a truly wonderful teacher.

In 1951, Helen was married to Joseph Robert (“Bob”) Cleary – her high school sweetheart and a passionate educator himself – and the two spent the next 65 years happily sharing their lives together. After brief periods living in St. Louis, Chicago, Rochester and Malaysia for Bob’s work, they retired to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina in 1986. In retirement, Helen was a devoted volunteer. She served as the Head Courier for the PGA’s Heritage Golf Tournament, sponsored by The Heritage Classic Foundation, and for many years, also ran a daycare program for the children of visiting golfers. Additionally, Helen was a long-time volunteer for the WTA’s Family Circle Cup, a women’s professional tennis tournament.

Helen – known to her friends and family as “Honey” – was the life of the party. She had a personality that would light up a room and a laugh that would carry far and wide. Helen was an avid storyteller, was blessed with the gift of gab, and was also a top-notch practical joker. She was a talented craftsperson and was always experimenting with new mediums to express herself artistically. And, while less adept in the culinary arts, that never stopped Helen from also experimenting in the kitchen – especially around the holidays when she would tirelessly bake delicious Christmas cookies for everyone she could think of. A devout Catholic and a proud American, she was both deeply spiritual and patriotic. Helen was strong-willed and fiercely dedicated to her family. She was also supremely generous and would never hesitate to help a friend in need. Wherever she went, Helen knew everybody – and everybody knew her as well.

The many students who passed through her classroom doors will remember Helen for the positive impact she assuredly made on their young lives. Her friends will remember her for her grace, humor, charm, and fun-loving nature. And her family will remember her for the unrivaled kindness she exuded, as well as for the unwavering love she bestowed upon them each and every day. Helen will undoubtedly be missed by everyone who was lucky enough to have had her even briefly touch their lives.

Helen Birch Cleary is survived by her loving son Mark Cleary, her adoring grandsons William and James Cleary and their mother Jenifer Cleary. A memorial service in celebration of her life will be held at a date and time soon to be determined. In lieu of flowers, please donate in Helen’s honor to The American Repertory Ballet & Princeton Ballet School by visiting www.arballet.org/helencleary/. Donations can also be sent by mail to Princeton Ballet School, 301 N. Harrison Street, 2nd Floor, Princeton, New Jersey 08540.

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