Since she was 13, Helen (Hanson) Sweeter, 77, has played the organ for West Prairie Lutheran Church.
Through every stage of her life as an Augustana College nursing student; a newlywed and mother; as a career woman; and finally in retirement the 2015 Eminent Homemaker has shared music with the congregation, neighbors, friends and vocal groups.
"Music always came easily to me. I believe I need to use my God-given talents, abilities and time not just for myself and my family - but for my community," says Sweeter, who began piano lessons at the ripe age of 5 and then taught piano for more than 30 years. "Although I only had a few students each year, I enjoyed giving children a start in music and teaching them something they can do for the rest of their lives. Whether you're happy or sad, music will get you through."
Sweeter inherited her love of music from her parents, Margaret and Helmer Hanson, who met playing in a country orchestra. The couple made sure their young daughter had an opportunity to not only learn how to play the piano, but also to see professionals play. She clearly remembers as a young child her parents purchasing tickets and taking her to Canton to attend a concert series.
"My sister and I learned to appreciate and love all different kinds of music through that concert series. Our parents also paid for us to attend Augustana Academy, which had a great music program. I sang in the a cappella choir and studied piano and vocal music," recalls Sweeter, who is a member of the South Dakota Organ Guild and an alumnus of Joy Quartet.
Sweeter and three other Extension Club friends started Joy Quartet in the early 70s after singing in a Lincoln County Extension Club musical together. The women sang together for seven years until the tragic loss of one of the quartet members.
Growing up on a farm outside of Lennox, she says her parents also instilled in her a strong sense of community.
"I truly enjoy rural life. I think it's a very good place to raise children," says Sweeter, who along with her husband, Don, raised three children: Jeffrey Sweeter, Lynne White and Jon Sweeter, on their farm south of Worthing. "On the farm there is an opportunity to build a strong work ethic and experience life and death at a young age."
The great-granddaughter of the first Eminent Farmer in 1927, Andrew J. Wimple, and a 4-H alumnus, Sweeter says community involvement was a part of everyday life in her family. She tagged along with her mother to meetings of the Progress Community and Family Extension Leaders, the extension club her great aunt, Dilla Wimple, helped establish in 1921; today it is among the longest running extension clubs in South Dakota.
A member for more than 50 years, Sweeter helped start an Open Class Division at the Lincoln County Achievement Days. "We needed to provide this opportunity for adults, many of whom were 4-H graduates, to remain involved in the fair and have another place to share their talents," says Sweeter, who has served as an officer on the local, county, area 6 and state levels.
Rosemaling is a talent Sweeter exhibits. She was introduced to the Norwegian decorative painting technique through an article she read and then took lessons from a neighbor. In the early 1970s she and a group of friends began taking lessons together and today, as Treasurer of the South Dakota Rosemaling Association, Sweeter and other enthusiasts hire an instructor annually for a three- to five-day course.
"I think it's important to carry on the legacy of this art form," says Sweeter, who sometimes brings granddaughters to classes with her. Sweeter also enjoys getting together with friends to practice the artistry of bead stitching. She has been able to incorporate some heirloom antique beads into Christmas ornaments for family members.
Sweeter has also made time to give back to her church through teaching Sunday School and involvement in Women of the ELCA at local and conference levels.
From music teacher to public health nurse
With her aptitude for music, Sweeter surprised many in her community when she decided to pursue a degree in nursing instead of music. "I truly thought God had gifted my hands not only with the ability to play music but also to care for others," she explains.
While in nurses training, she became interested in public health and enjoyed educating patients so they could play an active role in their own health. Following graduation, Sweeter married Worthing farmer, Don Sweeter, and put her nursing career on hold to raise her family and work as a cashier for the family auction business, Sweeter Auction Service.
"I wasn't involved in the labor side of farming, but I sure made a lot of hearty meals to feed those working in the field," she explains.
Today her son, Jeff, takes care of the farming operation while her son, Jon, continues the auction business. Sweeter's daughter, Lynne White, works as an interior designer for Commercial Interior Decor. The couple has seven grandkids.
About the time her children all left home, her mother became ill. In caring for Margaret, Sweeter was moved to put her education to work full-time.
"I had been helping to care for my mother, so after my mother's death there was a void. Also, I had always wanted to be a nurse and use my education," she explains.
Sweeter took a refresher course and spent the next 13 years working in public and home health nursing. "Circumstances lead you to things and if it's right for you, you do it."