Meet Heloise, still the nation's dragon slayer of household tasks

Given that we have already tripped our way through the Me Generation and are now knee-deep in the posh socioeconomic territory of the Yuppie, does anyone remember how to get ink out of a washable shirt? (No partial credit will be given to anyone whose mother has the answer.) There is one querulous voice coming out of this corner of Texas in response.

``If people ask me one more time how to get ink out of a washable shirt. . . . Don't they know to use hairspray?''

This is no hack homemaker here. This is someone who knows her stuff, who not only rids clothing of ink but bathtubs of decals and tables of candlewax, and can keep an angora sweater in line by tossing it in the freezer.

It is Heloise, dragon slayer of household tasks and chipper dispenser of thousands of money-saving, time-saving tips in the nationally syndicated ``Hints from Heloise.'' ``Never use ammonia to disinfect diapers,'' Heloise tells readers. ``Never make just one meat loaf. . . . Always have spare fuses handy. . . . Never leave a waffle iron wet. . . . Never go off and leave candles burning. . . .''

Never mind that such is not the stuff of the throw-away generation. ``Hints from Heloise'' is considered the most successful column of its kind. After running a quarter of a century -- it got its start in 1959 under the able hand of the original Heloise, the current Heloise's mother -- the feature is now carried by more than 500 newspapers in 20 countries.

``My philosophy on housekeeping?'' says Heloise with a wave of a manicured hand carrying a pearl ring the size of a marble. ``I say, `Look, no one can be the perfect, wife, mother, daughter, sister and run a career. If all you have is a half an hour, you surface clean. Later you get down and scrub the baseboards.' ''

Unlike the Betty Crockers and Aunt Jemimas of the world, Heloise actually gets in there and buffs the woodwork along with the rest of us. She doesn't seem to want it any other way. Despite the polished nails and peanut-sized pearl, Heloise is just plain folks. ``All of us have to clean ovens and refrigerators. All of us have to mop spills,'' she tells readers. She ends every column with ``Hugs, Heloise.'' And unless she knows a hint for sure, Heloise will test each tip suggested by readers in her own kitchen and file the results in her 50,000-item card catalog. The uses for nylon net alone come to 2,000. ``You're never too old or too smart to learn anything. I mean, I'm Heloise and I'm still learning things from the readers.''

Originally Heloise had wanted to be a teacher. She majored in math at Lyndon Johnson's alma mater, Southwest Texas State Teachers College. Her attitude toward housework is still less than reverent. ``I don't know anyone who truly likes housekeeping,'' she says. ``I can get satisfaction if the kitchen's a wreck and you get it all done and clean. But I can't go through life with just that.''

However, she also felt a growing obligation to the tradition begun by her mother when she was a Honolulu-based military wife with time on her hands and three distinguishing characteristics -- a tendency to dye her hair to match her suits, a wealth of technical knowhow (``Mother knew how to rewire a lamp''), and a desire to help housewives everywhere.

``When she started [the column],'' says Heloise, ``her premise was if I can answer your problem, I will. If I don't know the answer, I will go to a source who can. If I can't get the answer, then I'll put it in the column and maybe someone out there can answer it.''

Within four years of its inception in the Honolulu Advertiser, the household-hints column was syndicated nationwide. In 1975, it was passed down from mother to daughter (nicknamed Ponc'e but whose credit cards read HELOISE). Now after 10 years of cautioning readers, ``Be sure to vacuum thoroughly underneath your refrigerator at least once a month,'' Heloise says she will do the column ``forever.'' About the only thing that's changed since her mother's era is the addition of new products and new readers.

``When Mother started the column it was housewives. OK, 25 years later the basic premise has not changed,'' says Heloise. ``It is just that more people, men and children, are becoming aware. I've tried to address more general topics instead of heavy sewing or all baking [hints]. I get a lot of mail from men and they come up with some pretty good ideas. But some of them are real stupid. I mean, give me a break, they're so dumb. Oh, please.''

Heloise is the kind of person who still pronounces ``please'' as ``puhleeze,'' while she rolls her eyes and waves her hands in mock disbelief. Sometimes she makes squeaky voices when she is imitating someone, like readers or people she meets in the supermarket. She also balances her checkbook and acts as her own agent. She spends her work day in blue jeans (Calvin Klein), silk blouse, and Chinese slippers. Her finger and toe nails are painted (different colors), and she wears lots of gold bracelets, necklaces, and rings. Her hair (prematurely gray, which she refuses to dye) is pulled back in sort of a flip. Photographs of Heloise greeting famous people are stuck to the doorjamb of her office. Her husband, David, is a commercial balloonist, and a picture of Heloise's own hot-air balloon, with her name bouncing across the front, also hangs in the office.

Heloise does some recreational ballooning, eats Mexican food, and is a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan. But mostly she writes her column and thinks about household hints full time. Her third book is due to be published this spring. ``I write seven days a week; Mother started it that way,'' she says.

Born and bred in Texas, and still sporting a good-sized drawl, Heloise lives and works just a few miles north of San Antonio off Route 281 in a ranch house, which is long and narrow and custom-built with a pool out back, a pet parrot in the work room, and two sets of offices at one end. In the living room the shag carpeting is fire engine red to complement the black antique Chinese furniture saved from Heloise's parents' stint in pre-communist China. A department store mannequin dressed in a tuxedo stands guard at the front door. At irregular intervals, TV-security cameras go off with a ding-dong similar to the Avon lady commercials.

To help with the column Heloise employs a staff of four: Pearl, Jackie, Hazel, and Joyce. Her father comes in twice a week to edit the column. ``I just upped my father's salary from two to four hugs a day,'' says Heloise. An intercom system links the offices to the rest of the house.

In the office the co-workers open letters, answer phones, and cross-file hints in the metal card catalog.

``If a hint comes in and it's not in the files, then we test it,'' says Jackie in a tone of voice that suggests few original tips turn up. The mail on this day includes a letter from a man suggesting he was ``tormented by the loss of socks'' and a woman who requested a fudge recipe but had received tips on cleaning cast iron instead. ``Unfortunately, I have no cast iron,'' she wrote.

After talking to her bookkeeper for a while, Heloise sits down at the table to leaf through the mail while chatting with her staff. It is almost quitting time on Friday noon, but the conversation is still about hints. Heloise and Jackie talk about the difference between flame retardant and flame resistant (``Call the manufacturer Monday''), while she and Pearl discuss the best way to mash garlic without a press (``Use the flat side of a butcher knife''). The conversation wanders into ways of crushing graham crackers without using a rolling pin. Someone mentions putting the crackers in a bag and driving a car over them.

``There was a lady in Florida who said she didn't have a car, so she put the crackers in a bag outside her house and let the bus run over them,'' says Hazel. ``That's the truth.''

``I believe it,'' says Pearl.

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