The following story was reprinted as a tribute to the life of Helen Brockman. The story was published in the 2007 Royal Purple yearbook. Reporter Adrianne DeWeese interviewed and spent hours with Brockman on several occasions.
The house at 1100 N. Manhattan Ave. displayed letters that spelled out “Brockman House” on the side. Hundreds of students walked past it every day. Few realized a 104-year-old hostess lived and worked inside.
Born Sept. 24, 1902, Helen Brockman came to Manhattan, Kan., from New York City in 1968 to teach her revolutionary pattern-making system through her book, “The Theory of Fashion Design.”
After state law forced her retirement in the mid 1970s, Brockman helped the KSU Foundation buy her house. Brockman House was established in 1987 as the university’s unofficial home-away-from-home for university lecturers, guest professors and visiting scholars.
“One thing that would happen, since I have no family available, would be I would sit here by myself, night and day,” Brockman said. “But in order to have people come and take me places, if I’m going to go somewhere, unless I can walk, I don’t go — so it was essential for me to become a hostess.”
Barry Mazur, mathematician and professor at Harvard University, stayed with Brockman for a week in 1991 while giving lectures at the university. Mazur recalled his first encounter with Brockman.
“I came into the basement apartment, and I had my bags,” Mazur said. “I saw this woman working hard on an over table, but she didn’t look up from the table. She said, ‘You can put your bags by the bed.'”
Mazur said he was surprised by Brockman’s response, but the pair had coffee several days later and had a two-and-a-half hour discussion about Brockman’s pattern-making techniques. A friendship soon formed, Mazur said, and he continued his visits to the Brockman House in the following years.
Fred Brock, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications, met Brockman in early 2005 and became good friends with her. Brock, his wife and Brockman had dinner together at least once a month.
“The thing that impresses me about her is that not only is she 104 years old, but she also is mentally capable,” Brock said. “She knows everything about K-State’s campus and has a good group of friends who keep her in the know.”
Brock described Brockman as a woman who defied categorization and was not just another old lady.
“She’s a very good person for students to talk to because she gives them a different perspective about things,” Brock said. “Helen does not tolerate foolishness, so I think the students that seek out Helen are very self-aware and aware that the human condition is more than just your youth.”