Clarabelle lived all alone – and they knew it

My great-aunt Clarabelle was a firecracker of a person. 

Until Alzheimers made her dependent on our family – and vulnerable to a group of slick salesmen.

Clarabelle Henson (1905 - 1996) was a force of nature.  Here she is shown sitting with family on the steps of her family home in Tuscola, IL.

Clarabelle Henson (1905 – 1996) was a force of nature. Here she is shown sitting with family on the steps of her family home in Tuscola, IL.

My great-aunt Clarabelle was truly a force of nature in my life.  She was independent, opinionated, and had a firm and unwavering sense of self.  During my childhood, she split her time between an apartment in a suburb of Chicago and the very small town of Tuscola, Illinois (population of around 4,000) in the house where she lived since she was a child.  She was an incredible role model.  A professional woman in a time when such things were not as common, she worked as a much-loved teacher and then principal of a Chicago school for over 24 years while also managing the rental and eventually the sale of our family’s farm in Hindsboro, IL. Having never married, she was fiercely self-sufficient – until she starting suffering the dramatic effects of Alzheimers.

I was reminded of Clarabelle last weekend, during a long but beautiful drive from my home in the Bay Area to a soccer tournament in Redding.  At one point, about two hours into the drive, my husband chuckled and pointed out that the GPS map in the car’s dashboard showed just one long straight line of highway.  No intersecting roads.  No airports.  No towns.  There was hardly anyone else on the road – just miles and miles of open country, farmland, and an expansive horizon overhead.   There was literally nothing around us – it felt restful, almost serene.

It was completely reminiscent of the landscape of my childhood, growing up in Champaign-Urbana, IL almost smack dab in the middle of the state.  Although Urbana is home to the University of Illinois, we lived on the outskirts of Champaign, and it felt very connected to the farms around it.  Although my kids roll their eyes when I talk about it, my elementary school was bordered on three sides by corn fields, and the school shut down on days when the snow prevented the school buses from picking up the children living on farms just outside of town.  When I’m out in rural areas of California, I feel – in some way deeply imprinted from my childhood – like it’s home.

There are so  many wonderful things about small rural towns – whether in Illinois or California.  When we visited Clarabelle in Tuscola and took her out to dinner (at the truck stop no less!), almost everyone knew each other.  She was close to her neighbors on her small street.  We ate homemade apple pie from fruit we picked in her backyard.  Many older Californians leave urban areas and move out to smaller towns in their retirement for exactly these kinds of benefits.  They seek a slower pace, more tightly-knit community, and a more affordable cost of living when they start having to manage on a fixed income.

The GPS map in the car dashboard shows one straight line of Highway 505 heading north - and nothing else around.

The GPS map in the car dashboard shows one straight line of Highway 505 heading north – and nothing else around.

But seniors living in small, rural towns can also be uniquely vulnerable.  In the last decade or so of her life, Clarabelle struggled with the impact of Alzheimers and dementia.  At the beginning, she still lived alone in her family home, and our family – my dad in particular – helped her manage the impact of short-term memory loss and moments of confusion.  But then she got on the list of a team of salesmen from a near-by town.  They figured out that she lived all alone – and that she was completely unconcerned about inviting them into her house.  She called them “the nice young men who come to visit.”  They tried to sell her all kinds of insurance that she clearly didn’t need – and they would stop by her house in cycles, each of them trying to make the sale.   Sometimes they succeeded, and she paid them thousands of dollars. Luckily, the neighbors would call my dad to let him know that it was happening.  He would call Clarabelle, demand that she put these “nice young men” on the phone with him, and berate them until they left.  Eventually it got so bad that my dad went to their office, told them that he knew exactly what they were doing, and that our family wouldn’t stand for it any longer.  Finally, the visits stopped.

Clarabelle was lucky.  She had family relatively close-by, neighbors who were part of the solution, and family members fully capable of handling the problem.  But many seniors do not.  They move to rural areas and no longer have familiar support systems.  Their families members live too far away to monitor what is happening.  Neighbors don’t make those phone calls.  And seniors fall victim to all kinds of abuse – both financial, emotional, and even physical.

Some seniors can turn to their local nonprofit legal organization that provides free legal help to older Californians for help.  But some live hundreds of miles from the nearest legal services nonprofit – and cannot travel to get there.  And that is why the Justice Bus Project is focused on bringing free legal assistance to exactly those seniors living in rural and isolated areas of the state.  One of OneJustice’s key initiatives in 2013 is to expand the services available for older Californians – both through increased Justice Bus Trips to bring free legal help right to rural senior centers and senior housing facilities, and by expanding the capacity of nonprofit legal organizations serving seniors through training, coaching and support on nonprofit management.

I was reminded on the drive to Redding of exactly why the Justice Bus Project is so important to those seniors – and the rurally based nonprofit legal organizations trying to reach and serve them.  Because while that long stretch of highway with nothing around felt serene and beautiful as we were driving through, it also means that the seniors living in those areas can feel inescapably alone – and vulnerable to those who are looking for victims. Just like my great-aunt Clarabelle.


Julia Wilson is honored to serve as the executive director of OneJusticeJulia R. Wilson is the executive director of OneJustice, where she is responsible for leading statewide advocacy efforts on behalf of the legal services delivery system, undertaking multiple statewide strategic planning initiatives, and serving as the legal services community’s liaison to key access to justice partners. At heart she is still a small town mid-western girl, who loves the urban energy of downtown San Francisco but craves the wide open horizon of big sky country.  Read more about Julia on our website.


    • Thanks Kathi! She was quite a lady – reminds me a bit of some of the Squires gals! Same strong spirits! 🙂

  1. We all need to keep our eye out for the senior members of our community. So often we seek to give back through organizations and forget we can give back to the people who live on our block or even right next door. Find a senior friend, visit often and ask questions so they know you are there for them if they should need to talk or require help in any way.

    Jill Vedder Howell
    Clarabell Henson’s great niece.

    • Thank you so much, Jill! And we are so honored to have Clarabelle’s great niece’s feedback and support! Thank you!

  2. What a beautifully written story, and so compelling. We’re all getting older, and it’s so nice to know that organizations like One Justice exist to look out for the rights of the frail and elderly. Thank you!

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  4. Miss Henson was our kind, awesome principal at Cossitt School in LaGrange, IL. She was also friends with some of our family members who were also teachers. A wonderful story, Julia, I posted it on my facebook for all other Cossitt kids to read. A wonderful woman, really, she never scared us.

    • Lynn – I was SO moved by your comment – and your reflections on Clarabelle. She was such a unique and special woman, and I so appreciate your taking the time to share this with others who knew her – THANK YOU so much!

  5. Miss Henson was the principal of Cossitt Avenue School when I attended it. On a few occasions, she ate Sunday dinner with us, at our house. My mother would always bake lasagna or some other Italian delicacy. Miss Henson was a perfect blend of dignity, gracefulness and gentle kindness. Her memory will always remain with me.
    Richard Jeffrey

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  7. Miss Henson…. How well I remember her as principal at Cossitt school. She was tough but she was always fair. She loved her students and we students all respected and loved her back.

    Roy Azzarello class of 1952

    • Roy, thank you so very much for posting your memories of Clarabelle Henson. It means a very great deal to me to hear from those who also admired and loved her. She was an amazing great-aunt, and I miss her so much! Thank you so much for finding this post and sharing your thoughts!
      Julia Wilson (great-neice of Clarabelle Henson)

  8. The last time I saw Miss Henson was in 1970. She was visiting a friend at the Homestead apartments in La Grange, Park. I was delighted to see her again since 1953. She smiled and waved.
    Well I must say that she was one of my heroes growing up and she certainly was instrumental in shaping my moral compass as a child, and guess what ? I still remember and love her today at age 76. She was one hell of a wonderful great person. I look forward to seeing her again in Heaven

    Roy Azzarello

  9. Julia,
    I remember your great aunt Clarabelle! Not only was she my principal, at Cossitt School, but she was a personal friend of our family as well. Many times she sat at our dining room table to share a meal with us. My mother, Angela Jeffrey, was a fantastic cook. Mom knew that Clarabelle loved Italian food. A few times a year my mother would invite your great aunt over for lasagna, homemade pizza or some other delicious Italian meal. I will write to my sister to see if we have any pictures of her during those times. If she does, I will gladly share them with you. If you have any earlier pictures of Clarabelle, please send them to me at I would love to have them in my childhood photo album.
    Richard Jeffrey

  10. Julia,
    I just realized that the person that posted before me, Roy Azzarello, was my brother Don’s best friend when they were at Cossitt School! My brother Don has since passed away. I would love to make contact with Roy. If you could be instrumental in that regard I would be so grateful.
    Richard Jeffrey

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