Helen Yunker is, no doubt, a legend in Ventura.
Over her lifetime, practically to her last days at 96 years old, she accumulated a prolific résumé. Born in Chicago on Sept. 3, 1921, she worked in sales from Chicago to California and landed in Ventura in 1958. She ran a successful real estate business, starting in 1979, and it remains today at the corner of Pierpont Boulevard and Seaward Avenue. She has practically an endless list of philanthropic efforts, which included scholarships for underprivileged students to various arts programs at Ventura College. Due to her fundraising efforts to renovate the science building and performing arts center, the college renamed the center the Helen Yunker Auditorium. Her philanthropy reach was broad and enduring over the span of her life. And while it’s easy to see her passion for ensuring that the less fortunate had access to all sorts of important and vital programs, it was her gregariousness and flamboyance that stole the show.
“She was always a lot of fun, an indomitable spirit, very strong image of herself,” said Kathleen Noblin of Ballet Academy of Ventura, noting her outgoing performance as the maid at the beginning of the Nutcracker for the last eight years. “She loved performing, loved being the center of attention. She was so much fun.”
Yunker not only put her money where her mouth was as a strong supporter of the arts, but she was practically unstoppable when it came to entertaining, performing, singing and lifting spirits.
“She was never pushy,” Noblin said. “She had the Helen Touch. It was like, ‘Notice me, here I am, I am having a great time.’ ”
Cynthia Loughman, friend and colleague for the last 40 years, remembers the great adventures and life of Yunker.
“She was a showman. She knew what she was doing every single second. Everything was going into that black book of hers. She even took time to sing at her own funeral,” and funeral attendees will, in fact, hear a recording that Yunker made for it.
“She is the only one who could spend an entire afternoon on stage and come up with new material every minute. You could not get that microphone out of her hand. It was funny, authentic, entertaining, brilliant,” Loughman said.
Yunker attended church in Ventura every Sunday for over 50 years, singing in the choir. Loughman fondly remembers organizing a group with Yunker, called the Ole Hens.
“I started Ole Hens group, five of us at happy hour. She loved The Sportsman. We were going for years, every Friday, as much as could happen. Unless I had something else, Fridays were known for a glass of wine. That was very special to her, going out on Friday. We would say, ‘Ready to cluck?’ ”
Yunker was also known for her welcoming spirit.
“Everybody knew, if anyone gave her the slightest bit of interest, she would make them feel she had known them a lifetime,” Loughman said.
As for Yunker’s personal quirks,“She was extraordinarily organized and yet she would be ready to do something on the spur of the moment. She had no tolerance for being late.
“She loved all things of entertainment, [especially] theater.”
Loughman said that although Yunker had macular degeneration, “She was almost blind, couldn’t see much of anything, she enjoyed music. She would go to plays just to go to listen to them but she would make a fuss if it was loud and foul.”
And yet that didn’t stop her from telling her own offensive jokes.
“She would tell foul jokes — she would grab a mic and, first thing, say that joke I told her not to tell. I mean, it was raw and it wasn’t appropriate. She was old and she could do what she wanted. She picked her skirt up and showed her legs because she had beautiful legs. She just wanted to have fun.”
While Yunker never married or had children, she gave the world a true show, enabled the downtrodden and created pathways for others to accomplish great things.
“She was always upbeat,” Loughman said. “If I was feeling down, worn, she would give me a call. It wasn’t what she said, it was her attitude toward life. You didn’t want to disappoint her by dragging her down, elevating your own mood. ‘What did you have to feel bad about?’ Helen would say,” Loughman recalled. “Felt like family.”
Yunker was a pistol and a firecracker all in one, even memorialized in the Ventura Historic Mural in front of the San Buenaventura Mission. Even into her 90s, she was formidable.
“She walked in her house one day and found a guy robbing her. She screamed bloody murder and then he said, ‘I won’t hurt you, I just came to rob you.’ She told him, ‘Empty your pockets. I don’t want what’s yours but I want what’s mine. I want you to just leave and just forget you ever saw me and you never come back.’ And she walked him down the street, at night, a woman alone, in her 90s, scolding him. When she got back, she called 911. The police found him and it turned out, he was a serial rapist being sought by the police.”
Yunker died July 28 due to complications after having a stroke, but her spirit undoubtedly lives on, just as she would have it.
Family and friends are invited to visiting hours from 2 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 9, in the JOSEPH P. REARDON FUNERAL HOME and CREMATION SERVICE, 757 E. Main St., Ventura, where A Most Holy Rosary will be recited at 6:30 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Friday, Aug.10, in Our Lady of the Assumption Church, 3175 Telegraph Road, Ventura. Interment will immediately follow at Ivy Lawn Memorial Park, 5400 Valentine Road, Ventura.