Helen Jean Sanborn
Helen Jean Sanborn
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Helen Houg Sanborn, 1927-2021

On December 27, 2021, Helen Houg Sanborn, age 94, passed away peacefully in her sleep. She lived at The Homestead Memory Care facility in Rochester, MN where she enjoyed visits from friends and relatives, good care, and a nice view of the pond out her window. She had been very healthy and active before Alzheimer's limited her abilities during the last few years.

Helen Jean Houg was born in Elgin, IA on May 24th, 1927. At age 5, her family moved to St. Ansgar, IA where she grew up committed to her church, the First Lutheran Church of St. Ansgar; to her school, St. Ansgar High, graduating in the Class of 1944; and to her piano. Religion, education, and music continued to be essential elements throughout the rest of her life. She started college as a music major at St. Olaf College in MN, but soon transferred to Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, IA where she earned a History degree in 1948. While at Cornell, she met and dated Frank Nichols. But being that he was Methodist and she Lutheran, she could not see a future with him.

After graduating, Helen moved to Pueblo, CO to pursue her history teaching career. During her second year there she accepted a blind date with Marshall Sanborn, an English teacher. To Helen, this relationship did seem to have a future and indeed, they married Dec. 23, 1950. Another move took them to Scottsbluff, NE where Marshall taught high school English. It was here that Helen gave birth to Stephen (1951), the first of their 3 sons. Mark (1954) and Stuart (1959) joined the family in Steamboat Springs, CO. It was a good place to raise boys. There were lots of outdoor activities, time to read, and time listen to music. All things Helen enjoyed.

The family moved to Iowa where Marshall pursued Masters and PHD degrees. Helen managed the family while he studied and worked to support us. Following grad school, Marshall accepted a job with the University of Wisconsin. Once settled in Madison, WI, Helen joined Bethel Lutheran Church, bought a piano, and began a career in Financial Aid at the University of Wisconsin. Helen enjoyed helping students attain their education and for her, the fulfillment of a regular job. She started her children on piano lessons, and practiced daily herself continuing to play beautifully into her mid-eighties. But all was not happy at home. Her church and her piano provided comforting connections as our family disbanded. She and Marshall divorced after 26 years of marriage.

Helen remained at her job with the University until her retirement in 1992. At that point she felt the whole world was opening up for the first time since high school. She wanted to understand how religion played a part in peoples' lives. It was through that study she found acceptance of many other religions and ideas. It led her to help found Bethel Horizons, an education & recreation center outside of Madison where she taught youth programs. She rented rooms to UW music students, giving them a peaceful place to practice, a home life and encouragement which led to lifelong friendships. She was a founding member of University of Wisconsin Opera Props, a charitable organization to aid opera students at UW Madison. In essence, she lived what she learned and had a rich life for it.

Many years passed and Frank Nichols, her date from Cornell days, calls. He is now a retired Methodist minister, and sadly, a widower. But also interested in seeing Helen. They both love music and enjoyed each other's company. Now Helen sees a future with Frank. They are married in 2008. Together, they found religious and intellectual companionship, as well as love. Helen and Frank remained together until Frank passed, November 18, 2020.

Alzheimer's disease ruled Helen's life from then on, but she maintained connection to family and friends as best she could. Her son, Stephen lived near enough that he and Linda could travel to see her often. They, with the help of technology, kept us all together. Our last Zoom meeting included all 3 brothers, Linda, Sandy and 2 grandchildren, Nicholas and Samantha. Three days later she passed. Although she could not speak during our call, she was awake, then shut her eyes, and smiled as we chatted. She seemed to be at peace, in the presence of her god, and with her family around her.

Helen is survived by her 3 sons; Stephen (Linda) and their children, Nicholas (a musician) and Samantha; Mark (Sandra) and their children, Austin and Kyle (a musician); Stuart (Noelle) and their children, Amanda, Kaitlyn and Marshall, plus great-granddaughter, Aurora. We are all saddened by her passing, but comforted that she is at rest, no longer in the grip of her disease.

We want to have a celebration of her life sometime this summer, but will wait to announce details of that event. We also want to thank the folks at The Homestead Memory Care and Seasons Hospice in Rochester MN for the wonderful care and kindness they gave Helen. A special thanks to Helen's friends Jerry and Susan Steinke of Rochester for their friendship. We are truly grateful for all you did.

Ranfranz and Vine Funeral Home is honored to be serving the Sanborn family; to share a special memory or condolence please visit


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P Peter Narum on Jan 8, 2022

I was a pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church from 2001-2006, and Helen was a deep soul, who appreciated beauty (especially its musical expression) and was a delight to get to know. May the love and promise of Jesus surround you all and give you peace. --Peter Narum, Madison, WI



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