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Sadness, shock in Monroe

Jesse Helms was known as a staunch conservative, a fierce anti-communist and an opponent of civil rights legislation.

But for Catherine Hughes of Monroe, the five-term U.S. senator was simply a powerful politician who took the time to write her a letter. She said her husband was having trouble getting disability payments, and Helms took an interest in their predicament.

“Who else would take the time to do that?” asked Hughes, 59, who was eating lunch Friday at the Knife and Fork restaurant on U.S. 74. “He knew how to look out for small people.”

Hughes said she heard the news of his death on television Friday morning, and was sad that “we'd lost such a good guy.”

Hughes' sentiments were echoed by many Friday in Helms' hometown of Monroe, where Helms' father once served as police and fire chief.

While drawing national attention as a leader of the conservative movement, Helms was also known locally for helping people such as Hughes – a fact that helped him narrowly win re-election four times.

But others – often African Americans – said they were still angry, five years after he retired from the Senate.

Monroe was mostly closed Friday for the Fourth of July, and word of Helms' death hadn't swept through the community. At a Wendy's restaurant on U.S. 74, a group eating lunch was stunned when told the city's famous son was dead.

“He always spoke for what he believed in,” said Judy Aycoth, 59, a retired nurse. “He didn't bend to special interests, and he was proud to be from North Carolina.”

Aycoth's friend, Jane Helms, 67, agreed.

She said she's not related to the senator as far as she knows, and said “you never heard anyone say anything bad about him.”

But there are some Monroe residents who are critical of the man known as “Senator No.” Helms lambasted gays and liberals, and he often used race as a wedge issue to help win re-election.

“Jesse Helms didn't care about black people; I don't want to talk about him,” said one African American woman, who declined to give her name.

Added a black store owner in downtown Monroe: “They say he loved his country? Ask them about civil rights.”

Jimmy Williams, who is black, owns a beauty supply store in Monroe's Main Street. A Democrat and Monroe native, Williams, 61, said he never voted for Helms.

“But the one thing you can say is that he was steadfast in his beliefs,” Williams said. “Some people hate him, but I would say he was a fair man.”

Not all Monroe residents had a firm opinion on the senator. Now engulfed by the Charlotte metro area, the fast-changing city is home to a number of newly arrived Hispanics. Some younger residents said they didn't know anything about Helms, who was 86.

The Jesse Helms Center in nearby Wingate opened Friday, mostly for the media. John Dodd, the center's president, said he had been expecting Helms' death.

“Frankly, I'm pretty inspired,” Dodd said. “I think he's in the mold of our founding fathers, and for him to die on July Fourth – it's fitting.”

Helms attended Wingate Junior College, now Wingate University.

Randel Caldwell, 61, was split in his opinion of Helms. He admired his fiscal conservatism and that he was a “big-time conservative.”

“I supported him on a lot of his initiatives,” Caldwell said. “But among civil liberties, or civil rights, he was too slow to understand the need for change.”

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