In loving memory of

Helen Jean Sanborn
May 24, 1927 - December 27, 2021

Helen Houg Sanborn, 1927-2021

On December 27, 2021, Helen Houg Sanborn, age 94, passed away peacefully in her sleep. She lived at The Homestead Memory Care facility in Rochester, MN where she enjoyed visits from friends and relatives, good care, and a nice view of the pond out her window. She had been very healthy and active before Alzheimer's limited her abilities during the last few years.

Helen Jean Houg was born in Elgin, IA on May 24th, 1927. At age 5, her family moved to St. Ansgar, IA where she grew up committed to her church, the First Lutheran Church of St. Ansgar; to her school, St. Ansgar High, graduating in the Class of 1944; and to her piano. Religion, education, and music continued to be essential elements throughout the rest of her life. She started college as a music major at St. Olaf College in MN, but soon transferred to Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, IA where she earned a History degree in 1948. While at Cornell, she met and dated Frank Nichols. But being that he was Methodist and she Lutheran, she could not see a future with him.

After graduating, Helen moved to Pueblo, CO to pursue her history teaching career. During her second year there she accepted a blind date with Marshall Sanborn, an English teacher. To Helen, this relationship did seem to have a future and indeed, they married Dec. 23, 1950. Another move took them to Scottsbluff, NE where Marshall taught high school English. It was here that Helen gave birth to Stephen (1951), the first of their 3 sons. Mark (1954) and Stuart (1959) joined the family in Steamboat Springs, CO. It was a good place to raise boys. There were lots of outdoor activities, time to read, and time listen to music. All things Helen enjoyed.

The family moved to Iowa where Marshall pursued Masters and PHD degrees. Helen managed the family while he studied and worked to support us. Following grad school, Marshall accepted a job with the University of Wisconsin. Once settled in Madison, WI, Helen joined Bethel Lutheran Church, bought a piano, and began a career in Financial Aid at the University of Wisconsin. Helen enjoyed helping students attain their education and for her, the fulfillment of a regular job. She started her children on piano lessons, and practiced daily herself continuing to play beautifully into her mid-eighties. But all was not happy at home. Her church and her piano provided comforting connections as our family disbanded. She and Marshall divorced after 26 years of marriage.

Helen remained at her job with the University until her retirement in 1992. At that point she felt the whole world was opening up for the first time since high school. She wanted to understand how religion played a part in peoples' lives. It was through that study she found acceptance of many other religions and ideas. It led her to help found Bethel Horizons, an education & recreation center outside of Madison where she taught youth programs. She rented rooms to UW music students, giving them a peaceful place to practice, a home life and encouragement which led to lifelong friendships. She was a founding member of University of Wisconsin Opera Props, a charitable organization to aid opera students at UW Madison. In essence, she lived what she learned and had a rich life for it.

Many years passed and Frank Nichols, her date from Cornell days, calls. He is now a retired Methodist minister, and sadly, a widower. But also interested in seeing Helen. They both love music and enjoyed each other's company. Now Helen sees a future with Frank. They are married in 2008. Together, they found religious and intellectual companionship, as well as love. Helen and Frank remained together until Frank passed, November 18, 2020.

Alzheimer's disease ruled Helen's life from then on, but she maintained connection to family and friends as best she could. Her son, Stephen lived near enough that he and Linda could travel to see her often. They, with the help of technology, kept us all together. Our last Zoom meeting included all 3 brothers, Linda, Sandy and 2 grandchildren, Nicholas and Samantha. Three days later she passed. Although she could not speak during our call, she was awake, then shut her eyes, and smiled as we chatted. She seemed to be at peace, in the presence of her god, and with her family around her.

Helen is survived by her 3 sons; Stephen (Linda) and their children, Nicholas (a musician) and Samantha; Mark (Sandra) and their children, Austin and Kyle (a musician); Stuart (Noelle) and their children, Amanda, Kaitlyn and Marshall, plus great-granddaughter, Aurora. We are all saddened by her passing, but comforted that she is at rest, no longer in the grip of her disease.

We want to have a celebration of her life sometime this summer, but will wait to announce details of that event. We also want to thank the folks at The Homestead Memory Care and Seasons Hospice in Rochester MN for the wonderful care and kindness they gave Helen. A special thanks to Helen's friends Jerry and Susan Steinke of Rochester for their friendship. We are truly grateful for all you did.

Ranfranz and Vine Funeral Home is honored to be serving the Sanborn family; to share a special memory or condolence please visit


Debra Kinzer wrote on Mar 22, 2022:

"Helen was my friend, my second mother, and my trusted soul guide, and later she became Grandma Helen to our twin boys. I moved into Helen's home in Madison in 1983 for graduate school in the School of Music. We both shared the love for piano and opera, and enjoyed concerts together. We even went to a football game! I knew all of her friends, and knew a lot about her treasured family. What I treasured about her was her genuine faith and joy throughout all that life brought. We shared our life stories, our challenges, and the victories that God brought about over time. At that time, I was far from being a spiritually-minded person, but Helen was patient, accepting, and gently offered advice for what was good, better, and best. After moving away from Madison, I got married, and asked Helen to be a reader in our wedding, because her faith and friendship was so genuine. A few years later my husband and I had our sons, and we would make the drive to Madison to visit Grandma Helen. Our boys loved staying at her house, going on adventures in the backyard, eating ice cream on campus, and watching TV . Those memories helped inspire one of our boys to attend UW-Madison as an electrical engineer student and top-notch rugby player. Helen loved freely and deeply, and she showed me what forgiveness looked like. One of the last funny things she told me before her beloved husband passed away was, "We are doing well and we are happy. We can't travel anymore, but we take pills, and naps, and enjoy taking care of each other... " I loved my Helen! " wrote on Jan 13, 2022:

"I met Helen and her husband Frank in the contemporary issues group at the Christ United Methodist in Rochester. They both immediately made me feel welcome and they were a joy to visit with. I didnt realize Helen had lived such an interesting vibrant life with helping college students but am not surprised. Helen was a classy intelligent lady with a very kind heart. Helen and Frank were special to me and I wish I could have gotten to spend more time with them listening to their stories. Love and condolences to the family. Jenny N"

Pat Hrabe wrote on Jan 11, 2022:

"Dear Family, Our thoughts and deep sympathy are with you in the loss of your precious Mother and Grandmother. We met her following her marriage to Frank. She was so delightful and was immediately treasured as a gift to CUMC members and friends. Her deep faith and warmth was so evident in her conversations. My husband, Jerry always gave her a special hug. She was a part of my Covenant group. We loved her participation and valued her input and comments. She was a most accomplished woman. She loved and was so proud of her family. We will remember her always for her beautiful smile, tender stories and genuine beauty. ?? "

Linda P. Hancock wrote on Jan 9, 2022:

"When I arrived at the Office of Student Financial Aids in the fall of 1969, I was simply looking for employment anywhere as the wife of a first year law student, just starting our life together. I landed a job actually in the office of Student Financial Aids as a secretary and met this dear woman, who immediately took me under her wing, showing kindness and being a role model for all things important. When our daughter was born nine years later, we gave her "Helen" as her middle name, honoring this dear friend who had given Jerry and me such a grounding in how to live with integrity. We will miss her. "

Bette Sheehan wrote on Jan 9, 2022:

"I met Helen at early morning exercise class in Madison and just loved her. I was so happy for her when she re-connected with Frank. Great photo?exactly how I remember her. She loved her sons. My thought are with the entire family."

Laura Rooney wrote on Jan 8, 2022:

"Helen was my wonderful landlady on Greening Lane in Madison, and we became strong friends...Gemini friends we called ourselves, as we share the same birthday. One lovely summer evening we walked down to the lake in our pajamas and robes, among the wonderful lilac smell that occupied her street, and watched the moon rise out of the lake. For many years after, we would call each other monthly during the full moon, each walk outside to our porches, and howl together on the phone. Our neighbors were tolerant, and later, Frank was the most tolerant. I had the honor of playing viola at their wedding, and then again at the Homestead for her 90th birthday party. I have such wonderful memories of the years at Greening Lane, her generosity, her kindness, the fun we had eating frozen yogurt in the backyard (again in pjs) watching a meteor shower. She was a wonderful friend, a soulmate, and a privilege to know. Thank you dear Helen! If the family would like me to play viola for her celebration of life, I would be honored and happy to. But I know you have many musicians already in your family! I look forward to the celebration when it happens."

Steve Van Ess wrote on Jan 8, 2022:

"Helen was a wonderful, cheerful person. When I started my job as a Financial Aid Counselor in 1975, I was lucky to have the office next to Helen's with an adjoining door. I was constantly running into her office to ask her advice. Helen really knew her stuff, was always patient with me, and really cared about helping students and their families. I had the privilege of learning from the best. Steve Van Ess"

Wally and Peggy Douma wrote on Jan 8, 2022:

"Wally and Peggy Douma - January 8, 2022 We are saddened to read of Helen's passing on December 27, 2021. Wally remembers that "hiring Helen was one of the best moves I ever made as director of Student Financial Aid. As counselor to married students she saved countless student marriages through her thoughtful, sensitive and caring understanding of the unique married student situation." She was probably the only person who rode to campus meetings with her boss riding on the back of her motorcycle. We also remember how she happily shared her home for student financial aid office gatherings."

MLTYNE wrote on Jan 8, 2022:

"I was in a Saturday morning Bible study group with Helen for over 30 years at Bethel Lutheran Church. Helen shared her strong faith and her wisdom with us on so many topics! She was such a strong follower of Christ and influenced my personal faith journey in so many ways. May God bless and comfort all those left behind. I treasure the blessing of her friendship. Mary Lou Tyne, Madison, WI"

Peter Narum wrote on Jan 8, 2022:

"I was a pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church from 2001-2006, and Helen was a deep soul, who appreciated beauty (especially its musical expression) and was a delight to get to know. May the love and promise of Jesus surround you all and give you peace. --Peter Narum, Madison, WI"

Margaret Hawley wrote on Jan 8, 2022:

"I spent many hours with Helen at Bethel exploring region. She was so insightful. Such a calming presence. I remember that time with great fondness. Bless your family in this time of sorrow. "