Young Jesse Helms was a senior at Monroe High School when the president of nearby Wingate Junior College paid a visit to his parents' home.
C.C. Burris intended to recruit Jesse to what was then a struggling two-year school. The boy's father, Jesse Helms Sr., appreciated the interest, but it was 1938, and the Great Depression had left the family unable to pay for advanced education.
Don't worry about that, the president said: “He'll pay us back someday.”
Jesse Helms Jr., who died early Friday at age 86, would remember the gesture, and he often retold that story and others of the people and the small Piedmont town that shaped his 30-year U.S. Senate career.
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“Certainly Monroe is one of the important influences – if not the most important influence on his life,” said John Dodd, director of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, part of Helms' repayment to the school. “He was always reflecting on that.”
Helms spent his first two decades in Monroe – then a racially segregated town of about 5,000 – before going off to college, then the Navy, then the rest of his storied life.
Helms carried that rural independence through his Senate career, where he saw himself as protecting the values of places like his hometown, rarely bending on hot-button issues such as abortion and school prayer.
“I think the student body as a whole sort of thought he was going to go make something of himself,” said Monroe's William McLeod, a year behind Helms at Monroe High. “‘One day, that boy's gonna do something' – that's kind of how people felt about Jesse.”
Helms was born in October 1921, son of Ethel Mae and Jesse Sr. – whom he admiringly would refer to as the “real Jesse Helms.” His mother was active at First Baptist Church, which Helms attended. “Everybody was poor, but nobody realized it,” McLeod said. “Everybody went to church on Sunday morning. The environment had as much to do with him as anything.”
Jesse Sr. was Monroe's fire chief – and for a short while police chief – and among the son's strongest memories was his father's generosity. Jesse Jr. sometimes woke to his mother making breakfast for hobos that Jesse Sr. had rounded up and offered a place to sleep for the night.
“The motivation for his service to constituents – which he's legendary for – was not to help politically,” Dodd said. “It came from his childhood in Monroe. You helped people.”
Helms worked several jobs in Monroe, jerking soda at a pharmacy and sweeping floors at the local newspaper. He didn't speak of politics. “He was more interested in doing things,” said Andrew “Mac” Seacrest, a Monroe High student and now a retired journalist in Chapel Hill. “He was energetic.”
In his 1976 book, “When Free Men Shall Stand,” Helms wrote about hoping desperately to win a car at a Monroe Fourth of July celebration. When the prize went to another, a disappointed Jesse sat with his father, who gave the young man a lesson in free enterprise that would help guide a conservative career.
“The genius of America is not in winning something or in being given it,” Helms wrote. “The miracle of America is the opportunity to work and strive and earn the things we really want.”
In the early 1990s, Helms repaid his longtime debt to Wingate, giving his papers to the school back home rather than the Ivy League schools that had requested the honor.
In 1994, the Jesse Helms Center opened across U.S. 74, and Helms brought to the school a series of distinguished speakers, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the Dali Lama.
On Saturday, the Jesse Helms Center doors opened on an off day so that people could sign a guestbook. Said a sign at the door: “Thank you, Senator Helms.”
“He always talked about the good folks of Monroe and Union County,” Dodd said. “He never forgot.”