This short introduction to Helen’s life was written by Helen’s family and distributed at the Celebration of Life on November 18, 2017.
90 Years in 56
Helen Louise Cepek-Simpson was born in Sarnia, Ontario on July 14, 1961 to immigrants Anne Kuhn from Germany and John Cepek from Austria.
Anne had arrived from Germany by ship with her son Alan in tow, without English language skills and with very few job skills. Anne and her family had struggled in Germany with food shortages, poverty, conscripted family members lost to war, and the brutal horrors of WWII.
After arriving in Canada, Anne worked odd jobs and was employed as a general labourer at the hospital in Sarnia. She gradually learned to speak, read, and write in English. As the years went by, she became involved in the German Social Club. It was through socializing at the German Club that Anne met John, a carpenter and member of the local Carpenter’s Union.
The couple set their sights on Petrolia to start a retirement home in one of the old mansions remnant from the oil boom. Two homes were for sale in 1969, the iconic Fairbank Mansion and the McMillan House on Garfield Avenue. With a $4,000.00 difference in price, the pragmatic Cepeks purchased the McMillan House and launched the retirement home.
The Cepek family moved to Petrolia where they lived with the residents and raised a family. It wasn’t easy as money was tight but they worked tirelessly to provide for the residents and the family. The kids went to school locally in hand-me-downs shipped over from family in Europe.
From her own account, Helen was a very curious little girl. She got in trouble for climbing trees and loved animals. She was light-hearted and always up for adventures with her friends Brenda Small and Tammy Bailey.
After high school, Helen spent a year in Germany working as a nanny. Helen learned German and got to know her aunts, uncles and cousins. Going abroad alone in the late 1970s wasn’t like it is today. Helen was fearless.
Around this time, Anne became sick and the retirement home closed. But thanks to Helen’s propensity for risk, it didn’t stay closed for long.
Doug Simpson appeared on the scene around this time. Les Cepek, Helen’s brother, had met Doug in high school where they quickly became friends. Les and Doug had spent a summer in Germany together, visiting family and working at the local brassiere factory. Doug was amazed by the hospitality of Les’ relatives in Germany and admired how fun-loving the family was.
Over the next few years, Doug and Les joined the Carpenter’s Union. Doug also pursued his hockey career; playing hockey locally and in Europe.
After spending a year in Germany, Helen became employed at Twilight Haven and the Sarnia and District Humane Society. In 1981, 20-year-old Helen and her mother Anne re-opened the retirement home. Initially, Helen and Anne struggled with only one resident for an entire year. Helen’s young age worked against her and she was told by a member of a community group to “go home and try something else.” This type of reaction only fueled Helen’s determination.
On the verge of closing the retirement home again, an article in the Sarnia Observer was published about Garfield Manor and the phone started ringing. Within a year, an addition was built in response to the demand.
Doug, Helen and the Cepek family all worked together to keep the costs of the addition low. At the same time, Helen and Doug worked on Doug’s farm together. Helen wasn’t afraid to pick up stones, jump on a tractor, prepare meals, and run the retirement home, all simultaneously. Helen had an incredible amount of energy and an aptitude for multi-tasking.
Helen and Doug were married on August 11, 1984. Doug continued to do some construction work in Sarnia while Helen and Doug renovated an old farm house near Oakdale. Jenna was born and Helen decided that the family should move to Petrolia to be closer to the retirement home. The 24/7 nature of the operation required that Helen be accessible at all times.
Helen and Doug soon built a house on First Avenue in Petrolia and Lauren was born. Soon after, they sold the house and bought an old Victorian house on Greenfield Street. The unique property backed onto Wingfield Street which gave Helen the idea to sever the lot and to build another house. Parker was soon born and the Wingfield Street house was built.
Helen and Doug and family settled into the new house on Wingfield Street. Just as life appeared to normalize, Helen decided that a ten-bed retirement home expansion would suit the home. So the family moved to a three story walk-up apartment in Wyoming and launched the Wingfield Street site. Due to the short-term nature of the rental in Wyoming, the family ended up on the top floor with three small children and a dog.
After a year, Helen and Doug purchased the Nash House on Garfield Avenue. Things slowed down on the real estate front, but Helen, Susan, Helen’s sister, and Anne were still moving mountains, caring for 30 people across two locations.
It didn’t take long for Helen to find another opportunity. Sometime in the early 1990s, Helen returned home to announce to Doug that she had purchased the property on Albany Street. The only caveat was that there were two years to develop the property or the deal would be lost. So the two embarked on a lending exhibition.
The farms were sold to finance the first phase of the retirement home development on Albany Street. In 1995, the first phase of the retirement home was complete. Now there were three locations and the goal was to consolidate them all under one roof. Four builds later, a 55-bed retirement home was complete.
Despite Helen’s cancer diagnoses over the years, Helen continued to purchase more properties around Albany Retirement Village for future development. In 2017, Helen became an Oma to Louise Zimmerman, an important milestone for Helen.
Helen’s next development project is still on the horizon but she laid a solid foundation prior to her passing. There are always roadblocks and challenges when developing but her family is committed to carrying out her vision.
Helen inspired many people with her big ideas and generous heart. She will always be missed.
To read Helen’s obituary, click here.