Helen W. Grell walked away from an early singing career, choosing instead to devote her life to teaching young children and raising her own brood of five.
An "ambassador for the profession," Grell encouraged three of her family members to go into teaching, said her daughter, Mary Cappelli.
When Grell retired from Commack schools in 1996, she summed up her life's work by saying, "Teaching has been more than a job for me," said Cappelli, of Syracuse, a retired middle school teacher. "It has been a way of life. It has been a wonderful life."
Grell, 87, died Sunday at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip following a steady health decline, her family said. A former longtime resident of Deer Park, she most recently lived in Central Islip.
For her kindergarten and second-grade classes, Grell held "author parties" for students to read their work. She received countless letters of appreciation from parents, her daughter said.
Back in 2000, Grell received a letter from a former kindergarten student, saying that, "Your passion for reading and writing . . . definitely rubbed off on me. I loved writing for you because you made me feel what I had to say was important."
Her mother also "was a good celebrator," delighting in holiday festivities, Cappelli said. You name it, from Valentine's Day cakes to Halloween cards for newborn grandchildren. And, "once you got on her Christmas card list, you didn't get off," her daughter said.
"She was the best," Dan Cappelli of Albany said of his grandmother. He recalls Christmases when everyone got filled stockings -- aunts, uncles, cousins, even the dogs and cats. "She was super thoughtful," he said.
Born Helen Wackerle on Sept. 4, 1926, in Liverpool, N.Y., she received a bachelor's degree from Syracuse University. Having a lovely contralto voice, her mother became a paid singer at Radio City Music Hall, her daughter said.
But after about six months, she said, her mother realized the show business life wasn't for her, and she enrolled at Columbia University, where she received a master's degree in early childhood education.
It was at Columbia that she met her future husband, now deceased. The marriage ended in divorce after 33 years, her daughter said.
Grell and her family moved to Long Island in the mid-1950s, where she taught in the Half Hollow Hills school district before going to work in Commack, her daughter said. After retirement Grell did some traveling, visiting England, Scotland, Wales and Paris.
Her other survivors include sons Christopher Grell of San Rafael, Calif.; Thomas Grell of Islip Terrace and Peter Grell of Central Islip. Her daughter Diana Grell died in 2008. She also leaves a sister, Margaret Christy of Syracuse, and eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned for Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. at Mother Teresa Tribute Center, Lake Ronkonkoma.