A Russian immigrant fleeing the war, Helen Kovach-Tarakanov is the second woman to become a tenured professor at OU

A Russian immigrant fleeing the war, Helen Kovach-Tarakanov is the second woman to become a tenured professor at OU

Helen Kovach portrait
Helen Kovach-Tarakanov was a driven woman who taught for over 30 years. She was the second woman of Oakland University to receive her teaching tenure. She was a devoted mother and educator. Helen helped immigrants, like herself, better their lives with welcoming arms.

Helen Kovach-Tarakanov was born in Russia in 1919. She was a woman with a drive for education and would become one of Oakland University’s first tenured faculty. 


She received her law degree in 1941 from the University of Belgrade and a Ph.D. in Political Science and Public Administration from Elizabeth University in Hungary in 1943. She also received her teaching certificate from Karlov University in Czechoslovakia in 1947.


But her path through education was not without hardship. Helen was living in the time of the war, in Europe. She had a child and a husband, who was arrested by communists in Czechoslovakia in 1948. He was taken to the Soviet Union in Siberia.

“I did not divorce him, I just lost him,” she said in an interview with
Harvey Burdick in 1997.


She finally escaped to West Germany with her three-year-old son, George, and found refuge in a displaced persons camp. From there she applied to live in Canada as a farm worker. She signed to work there for a year, but as someone who had no farming experience and was even afraid of the cows that she was in charge to milk, they let her go early.


She made her way to Windsor to take up work as a maid for a few months making 13 dollars a week. Afterward, she worked at a sausage factory, cleaned movie theaters at night, waitressed, worked as a punch press operator and even made televisions. Good jobs were hard to come by for a woman who could hardly speak English, but she did know five other languages.


So, she took night classes to learn English and then in 1956, Helen was contacted by the embassy that she was permitted to come to Detroit.


Upon arriving to America, she taught Russian at Wayne State for two years and earned her Master in Social Work in 1959.


The chancellor of Michigan State University-Oakland (MSU-O), Woody Varner, recruited Helen to come teach at the new school that at the time only had two buildings, North and South Foundation halls.


At first, Helen was nervous about teaching American students, as she had only taught Russian to other foreign students at Wayne State. But Varner offered her a higher salary than she had hoped and told her that they were trying to be the “Harvard of Michigan.”


“He said, not exactly Harvard, but he wanted to be a different university.  He wanted mostly liberal arts, and he wanted the students—because they were mostly students whose parents never attended a university—he wanted us to teach them, not only about just the language, but culture and so on. And it was wonderful, because it was an obligatory two years of language,” said Helen.


At the time, the school offered two languages; French and Russian.


Helen described herself as a warm teacher, one you could share your problems with. But she had an iron fist and didn’t allow for tardiness.


She started the Slavic Folk Ensemble in 1961. The dance group performed 15-minute skits throughout Michigan and nearby states. Eventually, they toured Poland, Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Western Germany over the course of over a decade. She raised funding for these programs through the Russian community and Rochester community, and Varner and Donald O’Dowd donated as well.


Helen later remarried to a man named Yuri Tarakanov.


Helen was also involved in the local Eastern European Community.  She helped many new immigrants with their immigration problems and helped them adjust to the American way the way she did.


Helen Kovach-Tarakanov was a driven woman who taught for over 30 years. She was the second woman of Oakland University to receive her teaching tenure. She was a devoted mother and educator. Helen helped immigrants, like herself, better their lives with welcoming arms.


Helen died
in May 22, 2003 as the legendary “Mama Kovach” and left behind a lasting legacy at Oakland University.


Women's History Month at OU:

Oakland University's Women's History Month series will feature the women who have made an impact at OU. The features are written by students in a feature writing class in the Journalism Program in collaboration with OU's Social Media Team and the Women's Leadership Institute. Follow the series on OU social media channels — #ThisIsOU.