Well-known entrepreneur, philanthropist, loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother Helen Woskob died peacefully at home surrounded by her family at the age of 89 on Ukrainian Christmas Eve on January 6, 2020. The day is one of the holiest holidays for Ukrainians. Above all else, Helen was devoted to her family and waited to pass until her family had gathered to be with her one last time. She describes her extraordinary life in detail with her beloved husband, her life and business partner Alex Woskob, in her memoir, Freedom and Beyond: A Ukrainian Woman’s Journey to a New Life in America (Piramida Publishers, 2015). She notes that her book is “the tale of a woman who, by the grace of God, managed to survive horrific events in her land of birth (Ukraine) to find a new and wonderful life in her adopted homeland.” Helen was a woman of great wisdom, compassion, strength, elegance and charm, who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to realize a storied life. She was an iron-willed woman with a tireless work ethic, for whom nothing was impossible when she put her mind to it.
Helen was born Halyna Drobot on February 27, 1930 in the beautiful rural village of Zorya, whose name means “Star” in Ukrainian. Her father Ivan Drobot was an affluent independent farmer, who with his wife Xenia raised two sons (Hryshko and Mykola) and three daughters (Helen, Marusya, and Raya). Helen’s family was driven out of their home by Soviet authorities. After several years when they were forced to live in the industrial city of Dniprodzerzhynsk, the family managed a brief return to their village of Zorya while it was under German occupation during World War II. When the Soviet army threatened to retake the village, the family loaded up their possessions for the long perilous journey in horse-drawn carts to try to make it to safety beyond the Danube River while the vicious war between the Red and Nazi Armies flared all around them. Most of the family eventually made its last leg of the journey by train to Germany where, after living in a German-controlled camp, they ended up in the American zone in a Displaced Persons camp in Munchenhof. There Helen lived with her family while attending school. She enjoyed taking part in dramatic performances and singing. One day a knock came on the front door of their family home. It was a young man who traveled by boat all the way from Canada. This young man had seen Helen’s photo and was so mesmerized by her beauty that he sailed across the ocean to see her in person. “I want to be your son-in-law and ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage,” he said to Helen’s father who opened the door. Shocked but curious Helen was impressed with the young man’s attractive looks and sophisticated appearance and the family accepted him to stay with them. Alex courted Helen for several months during which the pair truly fell in love. January 27, 1950 they married forming a partnership in business and in life that would last 69 years. Helen settled in Canada with Alex and her mother- in- law whom she respected and loved dearly. In Canada she gave birth to her first child, Laura and subsequently to her sons Alex and George.
The family moved to Philadelphia in the 1950s where Alex and his brother Ivan started a construction company, I&A Corporation. In Philadelphia, Helen helped Alex design the single-family homes he was building with his brother, each truly artistic and unique. In Philadelphia, their son, Victor was born in 1961. As Victor grew, Helen decided that she was ready to become a formal business partner with her husband She knew that together they could achieve great success. They shortened their long Ukrainian family name of Woskobijnyk (difficult to pronounce for Americans,) to Woskob. In 1964 Alex and Helen formed AW & Sons when they decided to construct modern high-rise buildings in State College, PA. Their first project was the seven-story Parkway Plaza complex, the most modern buildings built in the area at that time. They continued to construct luxury student housing in downtown State College which was a very innovative concept for the 1960’s. Alex and Helen’s teamwork enabled them to achieve great business and personal success. Alex ran the construction team and Helen ran the office, taking care of the finances and rentals. The company became the leader in providing high quality student housing for Penn State students.
Helen and Alex developed a special love of the community in State College where they built their business. Helen and Alex have been fervent patrons of the arts at Penn State with support for numerous musical, artistic, and cultural events. The Woskob Family Gallery in Penn State’s Downtown Theatre bears their name. Helen and Alex also made numerous contributions to support Ukrainian culture through the establishment of the Bahriany Foundation of which Helen was president for 10 years, through contributions to Ukrainian democracy-oriented and church organizations, and through major contributions to The Pennsylvania State University to establish The New Century Fund in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Woskob Family Endowment in Ukrainian Studies in the College of Liberal Arts. Helen was a collector of art and an ardent supporter of post-Soviet artists in Ukraine giving many artists an opportunity to show their works abroad. Helen was extremely creative and had a deep appreciation for design. She opened State College’s fine furniture store, Designer’s Studio in 1997. As a designer, Helen created her own sense of fashion and employed a fulltime couturier for whom she sketched her innovative designs, using couture fabrics from all over the world. Helen loved her native Ukraine dearly with all her heart as well as America, a place that provided her and her family with freedom, shelter, and great opportunities. Helen will always be remembered as a kind, generous, and wonderful woman, beloved by her family, friends, and the State College community. Helen’s loving husband Alex predeceased her in 2019 along with two of her sons, Alexander (1976) and Victor (1999). She was also predeceased by her brothers, Mykola and Hryshko and her sister Marusya. She is survived by a large extended family, all of whom she loved very dearly: her sister Raya in Canada, her son George Woskob (State College, PA) with his wife Nina and their three children Larissa Castner, George A. Woskob, and Alexander B. Woskob; her daughter Laura Alexander (State College, PA) with her son Nicholas Alexander and two daughters Alexandra Gryschuk and Larissa Vale; her deceased son Victor M. Woskob’s four sons Victor A. Woskob, Ashlee C. Woskob, Jonathan D. Woskob, and Alexander G. Woskob; and seven great-grandchildren Helena Woskob, Tiyanna Woskob, Nataliya Woskob, Alyssa Woskob, Hannah Woskob, Chase Woskob, and James Gryschuk Elabd.
By Michael M. Naydan
Woskob Family Professor of Ukrainian Studies and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages, Pennsylvania State University