Longtime political activist and Communist Helvi Savola died at the age of 91 on Nov. 20 in Wausau, Wis. She had lived in Wausau since 2000, after retiring from many years of leadership in the Minnesota/Dakotas District of the Communist Party USA.

As one of her comrades from the Minnesota Iron Range recently observed, “Helvi certainly knew the meaning of the Finnish word ‘sisu,’ roughly translated as ‘grit and determination.’ She worked her whole life to make this a better world.”

Born in Wakefield, Mich., in 1915, Helvi grew up in a family that was deeply involved in community activities, including those of the Finnish Workers Federation. The federation offered activities — sports, drama and dancing — as well as practical assistance in setting up consumer and production cooperatives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Helvi was active in the federation and subsequently joined the Young Communist League in nearby Ironwood. In 1937, she went to work in Superior, Wis., for the Farmers and Workers Cooperative Unity Alliance, and in September of that year received a call to work for Local 15 of the Timber Workers Union in Marenisco, Mich. That is where she met Matt Savola, the leader of the union.

Helvi and Matt were married in October 1939. They spent time in Butte, Mont., where Matt worked for a few months in one of Anaconda’s copper mines. From there, the couple returned to Michigan. Helvi served as manager of the Ironwood Co-op Store for a period of time.

During the repressive and anticommunist McCarthy period, Helvi and Matt answered an advertisement in the progressive Finnish-language newspaper Tyomies for a management team for the Clifford Co-op Association in Tripoli, Wis. They stayed there for 21 years, until Matt’s retirement in 1972.

Shortly thereafter, while spending time relaxing in California, the couple was approached by Gus Hall, then general secretary of the CPUSA, who asked them to help lead the party in Minnesota. They promptly agreed to do so.

Among their many interests, Matt and Helvi were acutely sensitive to the plight of small farmers, and often spoke at national meetings of the party about the ravages of corporate agribusiness on rural America.

After Matt died in 1977, Helvi continued organizing for the CPUSA for another 20 years. She and fellow organizer Helen Kruth teamed up to put out the People’s Path, a bimonthly progressive newsletter for political activists in Minnesota and the Dakotas. They spent a good amount of time selling Marxist literature at the Paul Robeson Bookshop in Minneapolis or taking the books on the road in their travels.

Helvi was known for her coalition-building skills and her active involvement in groups ranging from the Mesaba Co-op Park in Hibbing, Minn., to the Twin Cities Peace and Justice Coalition. Until she moved to Wisconsin, she would never miss a Midsummer Festival or an annual meeting at Mesaba Park. She was also on the board of a progressive, nonprofit foundation, the John E. Forchette Foundation, at the time of her death.

Helvi never lost her way. She was always “in the trenches,” even when the going got rough during the Great Depression and the McCarthy witch-hunt era. She leaves behind a rich legacy of working-class struggle and progressive values to inspire future generations.

She is survived by her son Michael, daughter Patricia Gohs, grandchildren and one step-great-granddaughter.

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