SCOTT SIMON, host:
NPR senior producer Davar Ardalan got a phone call about a year ago. It eventually led to this discovery, that Davar's grandmother Helen Jeffreys had been honored by a tribe in Iran. They'd named a mountain for her.
DAVAR ARDALAN: When I was growing up, my grandmother Helen used to hum this song.
(Soundbite of song "Dey Balol" (ph))
ARDALAN: It's called "Dey Balol," and it's a folk song the Bakhtiaris like to sing when they make their migration twice a year to find pasture for their flocks of sheep and goats. Their journey takes them across brilliant mountains and the frigid waters of the Karun River. My grandmother went along with the tribe once in the 1950s and described how they shepherded their flocks across seemingly vertical walls of rock and crossed the rivers on inflated goatskin lashed together.
My grandmother would also tell me the story of her youth. How as the daughter of conservative Baptists from Boise, Idaho, she ended up in Iran as a public health nurse. She was part of President Truman's Point Four Program that sent American experts to work in some of the poor and remote villages around the world. Here's an excerpt from a radio interview she did in 1958.
Ms. HELEN JEFFREYS (Former Public Health Nurse): And what we were trying to do was to make a survey to find out what health problems were most prevalent in Iran, what the conditions were, and what the most prevalent diseases were.
ARDALAN: In one instance, Helen single handedly convinced the reluctant cleric to allow the women in his village to attend her prenatal class. And then there was the village of Koshkerood, which means dry river.
Ms. JEFFREYS: When we finally left the village, the people said to me, you have given us hope. And when our engineers were able to put a shallow well in this village, so the people would have a proper - proper drinking water, they said, and with water, you have given us life.
ARDALAN: The Bakhtiaris became a permanent part of Helen's life when she defied convention and married an Iranian doctor 30 years her senior. My grandfather was born in a village in the Bakhtiari region. And when she fell in love with him, she fell in love with the tribe. Helen's life was all about breaking down barriers. She died in 1973 and is buried in Tus, near the tomb of a legendary Persian poet named Ferdowsi.
She didn't live to witness the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the embassy hostage-taking ordeal, or today's tensions. All of these events would have devastated her. I've never seen the mountain that's named after her. But now, I know that somewhere in the Chahar Mahal Bakhtiari region of Iran, Mount Helen stands as a monument to selflessness.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: NPR's Davar Ardalan. To read Helen Jeffreys Bakhtiar's journal entry about crossing the mountains with Iran's Bakhtiar tribe, you can go to our website, npr.org. This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.