Helen Geyer reflects on 71 years in King William

When Helen Ganter moved to 414 E Guenther in 1936 as a 12-year-old, she couldn’t have known that she was moving into one of the best neighborhoods anywhere – or that she would never leave that neighborhood for the rest of her life.  She attended Page Middle School at the time.  “It was the only school that our whole family attended – Bill, myself, and our three kids.”  She reminisces about life in the ’hood almost 100 years ago:  “Kids used to skate and run around at the corner of Guenther and Crofton,” she remembers.  “The windows would be opened in all the houses and you could hear the radios playing.  That was before TV and air-conditioning, you know.  I really never thought I’d see air-conditioning in houses!  I liked the heat then.  We didn’t have anything else so we all just tolerated it.” 

Helen also remembered hanging out with neighbor kids at one of the Dreiss family’s houses in the spot that Insco has occupied for over 30 years.  “We used to go swimming in the river behind their house, right by the Alamo St. bridge,” she says.  Helen later moved with her family to 523 Cedar Street, and lived there after she graduated from Brackenridge High School in 1941.  She remembers being shocked that the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor and start a war with the United States.  She was dating Bill Geyer at the time, a neighborhood boy in the merchant marines.  “He got to come home, unlike the other soldiers,” she said.  “Wars back then were different.  Today there are all kinds of ways for families to stay connected to the men and women at war across the world.  Back in that time you said goodbye and weren’t sure you would ever see them again.”  

She continued to live at the house on Cedar with her family until she married Bill in 1946.  She reports that rent for that house was just $25 a month!  That’s one of the changes she is most flabbergasted by: the intense gentrification of realty in the neighborhood.  “I never thought I’d see the houses around me going for half a million or more than a million dollars!  What does that do to our taxes?!”  

Bill, her new husband, had grown up in the family home in the 700 block of Guenther, a block which Helen has dubbed “the best block in King William” because of the neighbors that look out for each other like a second family.  Helen moved into the Geyer home in 1946 and still lives there today.  She raised her own family in that house:  Ron, Julie and Billy.  They all went to neighborhood schools - Bonham or Robert B. Green for elementary, Page or Terrell Hills for middle school, and Highlands, Brackenridge or Wheatley for high school.  “I worked 25 years for the PTA!” she recalls with a shake of her head.  “Ilse Griffith recruited me.  Ilse recruited me for a lot of things; I served on the King William Board for two or three years (1976-79) and even got involved with the Conservation Society for a while, but had to quit that when I needed to help Bill with the family business.” 

She recalls the many changes she has seen in our neighborhood over almost three quarters of a century:  Taco Haven used to be a photography studio where everyone took their kids for the family pictures, and she shopped at the Handy Andy (where Ace Mart is today) and later the HEB on S. Presa (now a senior center).  She volunteered at the dinner theatre, one of the many iterations of business attempts in the old church on S. Alamo (most recently the home of Frank’s).  She remembers going to the Roosevelt pool – still there today! – and the Roosevelt library, which closed when the McCreless library was built (the building is now home to a fixtures showroom).  

Helen laments the destruction of the beautiful old Brackenridge High School in the 1970s.  “They wanted air conditioning!  But they knocked down blocks of houses to build it!  That’s the real tragedy.”  She recalls the boondoggle of renaming Brackenridge “Wheatley” once the new building was constructed, and how a team of alumni rallied to change the name back to “Brackenridge.”  “I haven’t been to a reunion since 2001,” she said, which was a few years before her husband Bill died of lung cancer in 2004.  “I guess they’re all gone now.”  This is Helen’s last regret:  that so many of her friends and neighbors with whom she has grown up and grown old in the King William neighborhood have either died or moved away.  

“I think the neighborhood has just gotten better over the years,” she insists.  “People used to not be as friendly as they are now.  We didn’t know our neighbors as much as we do now.”  Helen considers the neighbors on her block an extended family.  She enjoys knowing every one of her neighbors and chatting with them as they walk by her porch swing.  She laments that she can’t get to know all the new people as quickly as she would like. 

“Knowing your neighbors makes living here nicer,” Helen says.  Her only disappointment with living in King William through the years has been people who insist on butchering the name of her street, Guenther (pronounced /gen-thur/, after the German immigrant Carl Guenther).  “If you have to put up with crazy historic stuff living here, you should at least get the name right!”

- Dina Toland