Carolina Characters

Helen Steenbeeck - a centenarian full of life

Longevity is not a gift unwrapped by everyone. People die every day. Someone is dying now. Death is bigger than us – right now in this life. Nevertheless, life can be lovely and rich with memories beautiful, sacred, and secret. We embrace the good and brace for the bad as best we can, living until we die. Some of us do this with boldness. Others do so with fear. Then, there are those who intermingle the two. And then there are some of us who exist like Helen Steenbeeck.

Steenbeeck is a centenarian who is nearly 105 years old. She is a woman of wisdom who has irrepressible joy. Deeply spiritual, she prays each morning and night.

Here, in her Myrtle Beach home, she sits in a chair and gives a smile that reveals her heart is truly happy and at peace. Laugh lines are sculpted deep into her skin. Her hair is a mound of silky, curly silver and white strands. Her laugh is soft and sweet like a baby’s touch. This makes for a lovely face. Times long gone and loved are in that face. It is a visage, which brightens when memories are culled from the recesses of her mind.

“She remembers lock combinations from 30 years ago from her life as a bookkeeper,’’ said Peter van Steenbeeck, her 74-year-old son.

Below is proof her memory is solid.

This woman can say the alphabet backwards in less than 13 seconds in sing-along styles even preschoolers would appreciate.

Her earliest recollection goes back to when she was 6 or 7 years old playing in the rain at 309 E. 40 St. in New York City.

That’s when her grandmother came over to visit and asked her how she was doing.

Steenbeeck replied, “I am doing fine but my shoes hurt.”

Her grandmother said, “No, actually your shoes don’t hurt. Your feet hurt.”

It is a simple story from the wholesome and happy chapters of the book that is Steenbeeck’s life.

Born on July 7, 1911 in New York, she was one of four daughters blessed to Polish parents. She was a typical kid who played stickball with broomsticks.

She dated the old-fashioned way – she and her suitor walked everywhere.

“My mother would wait for me to get home,” Steenbeeck said. “She always waited until I got home, even if it was two in the morning. She would be waiting, looking out of the window. Watching us.”

Her mother’s eyes, however, were far removed from her while she worked in a local movie house as an usherette. She was sweet 16 or so when she decided to use charm to her advantage.

“You know back then they would have designated seats, like Row E Seat 10,’’ she said. “And I was one of the people who would take you to your seat. We had uniforms, and the girls wore short dresses. We could show our legs. No pants were allowed. Just a dress,” she said. “We had to use a flashlight to light the way to the seats, and I would hold mine on the back of me so the light could shine on my legs. I had GREAT legs, and I got better tips that way.”

Peter van Steenbeeck was the one who took those legs off of the market. He was her husband for 63 years before he died 18 years ago at 88.

They met in grade school and fell in love later.

“His mother owned a grocery store across from where we lived,” she said. “We met in the store. We went out. We went to the theater. We saw some Broadway shows. He was nice looking. I guess he stole my heart.”

Her husband was a dashing dude. He looked like a young Spencer Tracy, while she resembled Claudette Colbert, only with dirty blonde hair. They were a profoundly handsome couple.

Her sweetheart, among other things, was a motorcycle racer for a Harley-Davidson dealer and a motorcycle messenger employed by the New York Police Department. They called him “Crazy Pete” because he was the fastest motorcycle messenger around – a human fax machine wearing goggles.

He had to sell his Harley-Davidson, however, before they got married. She made him do it.

The cash from the sale was used to purchase them an automobile.

“I didn’t want him to ride a motorcycle, and he didn’t need to ride a motorcycle,” she said. “Once, I took a short ride on it, and that was it. That was enough for me.”

They got married on April 30, 1933 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“We had to wait in the lobby before we got married,” she said.

Al Capone caused the delay. Well, sort of. A member of his family got married on the same day as Steenbeeck. She even saw him leave the church.

The postponement of her nuptials didn’t upset her though because the Capone clan left behind $100,000 worth of flowers and a big, fancy red carpet that ran down the center aisle. She loved the décor and took advantage of it by letting it stay in place for her wedding, which was attended by 300 people.

In 1946, they made Florida their home.

They had a happy life together. Her man, who was also a shipyard welder, took her on travels through Europe and across the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.

When he died in 1998, she moved to Myrtle Beach to be closer to her daughter, Paulette Cook, now 72. Her oldest child, Gabrielle Talke, is 79. She also has five grandchildren and five great grandchildren, whose pictures are featured prominently in her living room.

Her family thinks of her as a living legend that always eats home-cooked meals and enjoys bread, even for dessert. They believe her birth certificate came with an extended warranty.

“I thank God I am still alive,’’ she said. “We can go to sleep and not wake up. Once there was a time when I went to sleep and I didn’t want to wake up. I wasn’t well. I felt bad. Now, I want to wake up and live.”

Contact Johanna D. Wilson at or to suggest subjects for an upcoming column.