Milford fixture Helen Koziel strides toward 106th birthday

MILFORD — Whether its spending time with family, reading a good book or enjoying a game of Candy Crush, Helen Koziel says she is making the most of her life as she prepares for her 106th birthday.

Koziel, who has two children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren — will turn 106 on Sept. 26, but the birthday celebration has begun, with a birthday car parade Sunday in front of the High Plains Community Center.

“My life has been fulfilling because of faith, family and friends,” said Koziel. “That’s the only way I feel.”

“Her faith does guide her, and we are a close family,” added Barbara Schmidt, Koziel’s daughter. “My friends have become her friends.”

Koziel was born in New Castle, Pa., in 1916, but her family moved to a farm in Eastern Connecticut when she was about 10, she said. Farm life was fun but also a great deal of work.

“We had chickens, cows, pigs, corn and hay,” Koziel said. “And I did everything.”

When the Great Depression hit, Koziel, the oldest of six children, had to quit school to help the family, Schmidt said.

“She was only a girl, and at the time girls were not expected to go to school, because if they could help the family out they did,” Schmidt said.

Koziel recalled that her parents “took me out of school, and I went to work.”

The experience left an impression on Koziel, who made sure her own children and granchildren all got an education, despite her limitations in helping them with their schoolwork.

“I could only help them until eighth grade,” she said.

In 1940, Koziel married her husband, Joseph, who died in 2014 at 101. During their marriage, Koziel became a rare working spouse, securing a job at Federal Paper Board Co. in New Haven.

“My father got laid off, and at the time, nobody wanted their wives to work, but she said that’s enough, and she told my father she was going to work,” said Schmidt. “So she put on her best and only suit and walked over to the box shop.”

Koziel recalled starting as floor worker. But that didn’t last long, she said.

“The boss walked in and said, this lady doesn’t belong on the floor, she belongs in the office,” said Koziel. “I worked in quality control.”

Koziel would later move on to Pulp and Paper Co. in New Haven, where she stayed 25 years until she retired in the late 1970s. She and her husband built the house in Orange where she still lives in 1984.

But if Koziel’s formal education ended in eighth grade, her love of learning persists to this day. Schmidt said her mother has always loved to read, and finds the untold stories of women’s wartime lives to be especially interesting.

“She’s a veracious reader, but now because of eyesight she uses the computer to read more because she can increase the size of the letters,” said Schmidt. “She reads far more than most people do and even more than I do.”

In addition to reading, Koziel uses her Amazon Fire tablet to play games like solitaire, mahjong and Candy Crush.

In her nearly half-century of retirement, Koziel said she has never stopped doing the things she enjoys. She remains a member of the Milford-Orange YMCA and swims regularly.

“I learned how to swim after I retired, and I loved it,” she said. “If I have an ache or pain I jump in the water, and I’m alright.”

She has no intention of stepping out of the pool, she said.

“One time, a girl was swimming with me. She told me she wasn’t going to see me anymore,” Koziel said. “I asked her why and she said because she was 75 years old and people said she shouldn’t go swimming anymore.”

Koziel found the though of giving up swimming due to age abhorrent.

“Ever since then, I keep on telling people to keep on going,” she said. “If you like swimming, keep on going.”

Besides swimming, gaming and reading, Koziel stays busy, taking daily walks around Milford and volunteering at Milford’s Beth-El Center until the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to pause her volunteering.

“Volunteering was something my mother loved to do, but we had to stop going because we had to take COVID precautions,” said Schmidt. “We started a group called Soup Chicks, and for about 10 years we would serve lunches at Beth-El with other ladies. We had to stop going because of the pandemic.”

However, because of the pandemic, Koziel said she has learned to use Zoom and FaceTime to stay in contact with family and friends.

“The best thing that happened, I think in my time, was the zooming and the cellphone,” she said.