100-year-old Kenmore resident tells of time in circus, as a detective

Helen Warburton, right, receives a proclamation from Kenmore Mayor David Baker, left, for turning 100 years old.  - Courtesy photo
Helen Warburton, right, receives a proclamation from Kenmore Mayor David Baker, left, for turning 100 years old.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Helen Warburton used to sit on her parent's farm in Logansport, Ind. and dream of adventure.

She was born in 1914 at a time when women were trained to be homemakers and tended to settle in the same town they were born. But Warburton said she knew deep down she was destined for an interesting life.

"I was always fascinated by the brain and wanted to become a surgical nurse to a brain surgeon," Warburton said. "But I wasn't able to go to college."

Warburton felt stuck, wondering what she would do with her life. And then the circus came to town.

"I was friends with a young man that had joined the circus and he wrote to me and told me he was coming to my area and if I wanted to come watch, he'd get me a ticket for free," she recalled. "I went and thought it was fascinating."

Warburton's friend was Eddie Belletti. He owned Belletti Troup High Wire Act, a circus company associated with the Ringling Bros.

"After the show I hung out with Eddie and he asked me if I wanted to join the circus," Warburton said.

Warburton remembers asking her father for permission and he told her he thought it would be good for her to explore the world. "So needless to say, when the circus left town, I went with it," she said.

Warburton celebrated her 100th birthday May 31 surrounded by family and friends at the Kenmore Community Center. The city of Kenmore presented Warbuton with a proclamation for her years in the city at the last council meeting.

"I was so surprised and so honored by the city of Kenmore," Warburton. "I feel like I am just an ordinary person that lived my life the best way I could."

Kenmore Mayor David Baker said Warburton received the award for reaching 100 and for the amount of time she's spent living in Kenmore.

"She's been an active citizen in our area for a long time and has given much to the city," Baker said. "And to hear about her life is just amazing to me. I use to hear stories about people that were a part of a circus act when I was a kid and to meet someone that has actually done that in their life is so interesting to me."

Warburton was 16 years old when she became the main performer in Belletti's high wire act.

"I had been in tap dance and ballet for years, so my legs were strong, but my shoulders and arms were not that strong and I had an awful lot to learn," Warburton said. "There were no safety nets or harnesses to hold you up in those days. There was no room for fear, you had to be confident and I just went for it."

Standing at just 5-feet tall, Warburton was hoisted on the shoulders of men that were on bicycles atop a 40-foot tightrope.

"It was a rush," she said, smiling.

Warburton and her high wire group started their act in the Carolinas during the springtime.

"Working in the south was definitely an experience for me," Warburton said. "There was a tension among black and white people there, which was startling and upsetting to me. Where I grew up, I attended school with black people and they were my friends, so I could not understand the treatment they received from the white people in the south."

Warburton then travelled to the west, New Jersey, New York and Maine before making her way to Oregon and Washington.

"When I first saw Oregon and Washington, I fell in love with those two states," she said. "I remember thinking, 'if I ever get out of this circus life, I'd like to settle in Washington.' I never dreamed it would actually happen."

After traveling and performing for almost a year, Warburton said her relationship with Belletti became "more chummy."

"He asked me to marry him and I said sure; I mean, I figured that marrying the boss would guarantee I always had a job," she said, laughing. "I'm kidding, but that certainly didn't hurt my chances in the act."

The two were married for a few months before World War II started.

"All the boys in the act went off to war," she said. "My husband went to the Navy and I went to work at an ordinance camp, making sand shields to cover tanks."

When the war ended, Warburton waited in anticipation for Belletti to come home.

"I received a letter from a hospital telling me that he was injured a little and would be fine, but had a bit of a bad attitude," Warburton said. "But I didn't worry about it when I first saw him because he seemed like the same old Eddie to me."

Warburton and Belletti went back to work at their circus. The first day of practice, it was clear something was wrong with Belletti.

"I went to climb on top of his shoulders like normal and he stopped me and told me he couldn't do it," Warburton said. "Then he told me he couldn't cope with the suspense of circus life anymore. He told me I could take over and that we needed to go our separate ways."

Warburton took charge for a few years until she decided to quit. In November 1947 she left the circus and moved in to an apartment with her niece and a friend in Chicago.

Warburton scanned the papers looking for work when she came across an advertisement for a position as a detective.

"The interview was the strangest thing and I remember it clearly," she said. "They brought a man in and then told him to go. They turned to me and had all these questions about the man including, what was he wearing? How tall was he? I must have answered correctly because I got the job."

Warburton worked as a detective for three years before resigning and working as an insurance agent at Continental Casualty Company. Warburton was content there, until she got a call from a family member that had recently moved to Washington.

"They had started a doughnut shop over here and were making pretty good money and told me to come visit," Warburton said. "When it was time for me to go home I didn't want to leave and I thought, 'well, why do I have to?'"

Warburton transferred from her office in Chicago to the same company in Washington and settled in unincorporated King County, now Kenmore, in 1953.

"I just love it here," she said. "It's beautiful and the people are really warm."

Warburton's longtime friend Annette Eaton says Warburton's humor and positive attitude always lifts her up.

"Annette has all these funny quips and sayings," Eaton said. "Like, she will call me and ask me how her boyfriend is doing, referring to my husband. She makes me laugh all the time."

Warburton's advice to those wishing to live a long life is to always remain positive and to take on new challenges and adventures.

"I've lived a very interesting life," she said. "It's had it's ups and downs, but I've experienced great things. Sometimes people get too caught up in what they think they need to achieve that they forget to enjoy their life. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift."








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