Once Upon a Time

For Anne Adams Helms, childhood was truly the stuff of storybooks

Book by Ansel Adams, opened to picture of Anne Adams Helms and her brother looking up a cliff

Anne Adams Helms was photographed by her father, Ansel Adams, for a children's book that is tough to find today. ''Only a few people would still have it in their library,'' she says. ''I've bought a couple for grandchildren on eBay for $600.'' To read SF State's copy, visit Michael and Anne in the Yosemite Valley by Virginia and Ansel Adams (New York: The Studio Publications, Inc., '41).

Waterfalls tumbled hundreds of feet from the cliffs that towered over her childhood playground. Her backyard was a wonderland of plants and flowers, ornate rock formations and ancient trees. When a little girl grows up in Yosemite National Park, where Anne Adams Helms (M.A., '84) spent her youth, it's truly a once-upon-a-time kind of story.

One sliver of that magic time is captured in ''Michael and Anne in the Yosemite Valley.'' The rare 1941 book, found this semester in SF State's Marguerite Archer Collection of Historic Children's Materials, follows Helms and her brother on an action-packed day of outdoor adventure. What helps make the story so special is the medium in which it's told: stunning black and white images courtesy of her father, Ansel Adams, one of the world's most celebrated nature photographers.

''Sometimes we called him Pops or whatever, but usually my brother and I just called him Ansel,'' says Helms, whose Salinas home is decorated with her late father's photos. ''It wasn't meant to be disrespectful -- not at all. We loved him, but he really wasn't a daddy-ish kind of person. There weren't any family vacations to Disneyland or anything like that. He was gone more than he was home, but life was always noisier and more exciting when he was around.''

Her mother, Virginia Best Adams, a longtime Sierra Board member like her father, ran the Yosemite gallery that doubled as the family's home. When visitors bought the book, Helms and her brother received requests for autographs. ''We'd be sent for, and we'd write To Johnny from Michael and Anne,'' she says. ''It was flattering, but it brought us in from whatever we were doing. I guess I didn't appreciate the fact that somebody who was going to be very famous in the future took all these pictures of us.''

Modeling for the book wasn't always as fun as its idyllic scenes of swimming and picnicking might lead you to believe, she adds. ''When we had to get in the Merced River, it was really, really cold, and the grass tickled.''

In his own youth, her father was focused on becoming a concert pianist. Among Helms' most-treasured childhood memories are nights she hid at the top of the stairs, well past her bedtime, listening to her father play an old piano. ''Even after he got very old, and his fingers were bent with arthritis, he still played beautifully,'' she says.

Helms earned her bachelor's degree in English at Stanford University in 1957. Soon after, she met and married Chuck Mayhew, the father of her three daughters. When Chuck was killed in an accident less than a decade later, Helms began the painful task of rebuilding her life.

Anne Adams Helms smiling in her home with a piano in front of her

She focused on running the family publishing business (then called 5 Associates, now Museum Graphics), which produces stationery items, including postcards and matted prints of Adams' photos.

''The company grew from one room in our house to bigger and bigger rental spaces,'' says Helms, who married husband Ken in 1971 before continuing her education at SF State.

''I had been kind of ... un-thrilled, I guess, as an undergrad,'' she says. ''I'm not sure if it was because I was in the wrong major and didn't know it.'' But by the time she reached SF State, ''I was an adult by then, taking things that I really wanted to take -- that made a big difference,'' she says. So did the lack of ''a party atmosphere,'' she adds. ''That was an aspect I really liked. I was very serious at that point of my life.''

She found the pursuit of her master's degree in anthropology so enjoyable and all consuming, she says, that the family business began to suffer. ''It took a little longer for me to finish because I had to drop out a couple of times to try to get the publishing company back on track.''

Her own publishing didn't suffer, however. After a chance meeting with an Arab couple through friends on campus, she was inspired to learn more about their culture. Her master's thesis, ''Cultures in Conflict,'' was published as a handbook for ESL teachers of Arab students.

One of her happiest times was the brief overlap with her daughter Virginia Mayhew's(attended '79-'80) music studies at the University. ''It was wonderful,'' Helms says. ''It gave me a chance to get to know her as an adult and I loved it.'' (Mayhew is now a celebrated jazz saxophonist.)

Today, daughter Alison Jaques runs the family publishing business, but Helms stays connected to her father's work by circulating her museum set of Adams prints to museums around the world. In August, the prints will be on exhibit at the Sejong Art Center in Seoul, South Korea, before they travel in October to Munster, Indiana's South Shore Arts.

''They've been going to museums that probably wouldn't have had a chance to have an Ansel Adams exhibit, so I think he would have been happy about this,'' Helms says.

She still needs ''a Yosemite fix'' from time to time and visits her childhood playground often.

''I definitely inherited a love of the natural world from both of my parents,'' Helms says. ''My mother had grown up in Yosemite Valley, and I recall that she told me that when there were problems in her life, she would go out and look at the cliffs and that put things in perspective. That attitude has stayed with me.''




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