The last time she crossed paths with Helms, sympathy stirred

Back in the spring a woman named Patsy Clarke had triple bypass surgery. She rehabbed at a convalescent center in Raleigh. One April morning, as she walked down a hallway, she crossed paths with another patient being wheeled past.

Jesse Helms.

“We didn't speak,” she said Friday from her Raleigh home. “I'm pretty sure he didn't know me. But of course I knew him.”

They had a history.

Her husband, Harry, had been one of Helms' biggest supporters. When Harry died in a plane crash in 1987, Helms called Patsy that night. He put a tribute to Harry in the Congressional Record.

Seven years later, Patsy's son, Mark, died of AIDS.

In the months that followed, she saw where Helms fought a bill to help fund medical treatment for AIDS victims. She saw where he called homosexuality “a filthy, disgusting practice.” She read an implication in his words: If gay people died of AIDS, they deserved it.

So in June 1995, she wrote him a letter. This is part of what she said to him:

My reason for writing to you is not to plead for funds, although I'd like to ask your support for AIDS research; it is not to accept a lifestyle which is abhorrent to you; it is rather to ask you not to pass judgment on other human beings as “deserving what they get.” No one deserves that. AIDS is not a disgrace, it is a TRAGEDY.

Two weeks later, the senator wrote back. This is part of what he said to her:

I know that Mark's death was devastating to you. As for homosexuality, the Bible judges it, I do not.… As for Mark, I wish he had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity.

Patsy read the letter and cried. Then she got mad. She and a friend, Eloise Vaughn, formed a group called MAJIC – Mothers Against Jesse In Congress. They supported former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt's campaign against Helms in 1996.

They lost.

Lots of people lost to Jesse Helms. He went undefeated in five Senate races. I was living here for the last two, both Helms vs. Gantt, and it was funny to watch new people move here and say, This is the year Jesse goes down. We'd just shake our heads and pat their shoulders. They'd learn.

But history also has a vote, not influenced by money or campaign commercials. And in the long, slow vote of history, Jesse Helms is losing.

He spent years trying to prevent civil rights for black Americans. It happened without him.

He spent years lambasting gay Americans. Even when he changed his mind about money for AIDS research, he didn't change his views on homosexuality. The country is changing without him. Gay marriages began in California last month.

Not that long ago, Jesse Helms stood for North Carolina more than anything else did: more than Tar Heel basketball, more than the Outer Banks, more than chopped pork sandwiches with barbecue slaw.

Several of our reporters went out on the streets Friday to ask people about Helms. Some of the people they talked to didn't know who he was.

The world is changing.

Patsy Clarke is trying not to say anything bad about Jesse Helms. “I wouldn't want to hurt a family in grief,” she says. “I know what that's like.”

She is 79 years old now, and despite a triple bypass she feels fine. She didn't know until I called that Helms had died in the early hours of Independence Day.

His letter transformed her. She became a speaker and writer for gay rights, an activist, someone who works to convince other people of her beliefs.

“Sometimes zealotry is necessary to create sensitivity,” she says, and it sounds like something Jesse Helms would believe.

But of course she was on the opposite side of the issue, the side for tolerance and compassion, and the senator from North Carolina was on the other side.

She thought about all that when she crossed his path in the hallway of that convalescent center. She thought about saying something to him, maybe just reminding him who she was.

She decided to just walk on.

“In the end,” she says, “I felt very sorry for him.”