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Hundreds come to pay their respects to Helms

Jerry Musselwhite wanted to make sure he got to see Jesse Helms one last time. So Musselwhite left his home in Lumberton at 6 a.m. Monday for Raleigh, where the former U.S. senator was to lay in repose. The doors at Hayes Barton Baptist Church weren't open when Musselwhite arrived, so he sat down on a low wall for a breakfast of Mountain Dew and a cigarette.

“I just wanted to come to show how I respected the man,” Musselwhite, 60, said as he waited. “He might have stepped on some toes; but when Jesse Helms spoke, it carried the truth.”

Helms died Friday, the Fourth of July. His funeral today, also at Hayes Barton Baptist Church, is expected to draw prominent political figures from North Carolina and elsewhere. But Monday was largely for folks like Musselwhite, who showed up in jeans and an N.C. State University baseball cap.

Musselwhite had left his home early in case the crowd was large. It wasn't – Helms has been out of the public eye for years, after all – and only about 35 people were waiting when the doors opened. Jeans seemed to outnumber neckties early in the day as a slow but steady trickle of people filed past the flag-covered casket. It was flanked by a pair of N.C. Highway Patrol troopers and an oil painting of Helms seated at a desk with a sheaf of papers in his hand.

Late in the day, when Helms' family welcomed visitors, more formal dress was the norm. By the end of the evening, hundreds of people had paid their respects.

Many said they knew Helms, or at least had met him, and offered stories about his good manners or something he had done for them. Most offered some variation on the same theme: You knew where Helms stood because he had the courage to say exactly what he thought.

Many also hastened to add the caveat that they didn't agree with Helms on everything, such as his steadfast opposition to the civil rights and gay rights movements.

Lilly Rose DeVee, 62, said she knew Helms for years when she worked in the art department at WRAL-TV, where Helms read editorials after newscasts from 1960 to 1972. DeVee described herself as a liberal Democrat and said she disagreed with Helms on his stance on social issues.

But she said she still admired Helms and learned a crucial lesson from him.

“Jesse Helms taught me something important, and that is to be yourself, to say what you mean, mean what you say and stand behind it,” she said.

Helms might not be thrilled with where that lesson took her: When she was with the television station, DeVee's name was John D. Hardee. She is transgender, and was a homosexual man then, she said.

Helms probably suspected her sexual preference, she said, and likely knew that another man in the art department was also gay. She said Helms always treated them with the same courtesy and respect he showed everyone else there, though, sometimes thanking them for their work and once giving her theater tickets. In turn, she was happy to vote for him when he first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1972 because she knew he would to a great job, particularly on fiscal issues.

Many who came Monday were illustrations of how Helms helped make the modern conservative movement in North Carolina, by making it acceptable for Democrats to vote for a Republican.

DeVee was one of the famed “Jessecrats,” as was Musselwhite, who said Helms' Senate race in 1972 was the first time he voted for someone who wasn't a Democrat.

They may still be Jessecrats, but they don't have Jesse anymore.

After Musselwhite filed past the casket, he walked outside and paced aimlessly for about 20 minutes.

Jerry Musselwhite wanted to make sure he got to see Jesse Helms one last time. So Musselwhite left his home in Lumberton at 6 a.m. Monday for Raleigh, where the former U.S. senator was to lay in repose. The doors at Hayes Barton Baptist Church weren't open when Musselwhite arrived, so he sat down on a low wall for a breakfast of Mountain Dew and a cigarette.

“I just wanted to come to show how I respected the man,” Musselwhite, 60, said as he waited. “He might have stepped on some toes; but when Jesse Helms spoke, it carried the truth.”

Helms died Friday, the Fourth of July. His funeral today, also at Hayes Barton Baptist Church, is expected to draw prominent political figures from North Carolina and elsewhere. But Monday was largely for folks like Musselwhite, who showed up in jeans and an N.C. State University baseball cap.

Musselwhite had left his home early in case the crowd was large. It wasn't – Helms has been out of the public eye for years, after all – and only about 35 people were waiting when the doors opened. Jeans seemed to outnumber neckties early in the day as a slow but steady trickle of people filed past the flag-covered casket. It was flanked by a pair of N.C. Highway Patrol troopers and an oil painting of Helms seated at a desk with a sheaf of papers in his hand.

Late in the day, when Helms' family welcomed visitors, more formal dress was the norm. By the end of the evening, hundreds of people had paid their respects.

Many said they knew Helms, or at least had met him, and offered stories about his good manners or something he had done for them. Most offered some variation on the same theme: You knew where Helms stood because he had the courage to say exactly what he thought.

Many also hastened to add the caveat that they didn't agree with Helms on everything, such as his steadfast opposition to the civil rights and gay rights movements.

Lilly Rose DeVee, 62, said she knew Helms for years when she worked in the art department at WRAL-TV, where Helms read editorials after newscasts from 1960 to 1972. DeVee described herself as a liberal Democrat and said she disagreed with Helms on his stance on social issues.

But she said she still admired Helms and learned a crucial lesson from him.

“Jesse Helms taught me something important, and that is to be yourself, to say what you mean, mean what you say and stand behind it,” she said.

Helms might not be thrilled with where that lesson took her: When she was with the television station, DeVee's name was John D. Hardee. She is transgender, and was a homosexual man then, she said.

Helms probably suspected her sexual preference, she said, and likely knew that another man in the art department was also gay. She said Helms always treated them with the same courtesy and respect he showed everyone else there, though, sometimes thanking them for their work and once giving her theater tickets. In turn, she was happy to vote for him when he first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1972 because she knew he would to a great job, particularly on fiscal issues.

Many who came Monday were illustrations of how Helms helped make the modern conservative movement in North Carolina, by making it acceptable for Democrats to vote for a Republican.

DeVee was one of the famed “Jessecrats,” as was Musselwhite, who said Helms' Senate race in 1972 was the first time he voted for someone who wasn't a Democrat.

They may still be Jessecrats, but they don't have Jesse anymore.

After Musselwhite filed past the casket, he walked outside and paced aimlessly for about 20 minutes.

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