The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer asked readers to share their memories of former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Dozens responded. Some admired him, some despised him. Here are edited excerpts:
In 1993, I was practicing pulmonary and critical care medicine at the former McGuire Clinic in Richmond, Va. One of my patients was in the intensive care unit of a local hospital with pneumonia. He had recently retired as Sen. Helms' longtime chief of staff. The patient's wife asked the critical care nurses if her husband's former employer could visit her husband in the ICU long after visiting hours. She explained that he had to drive down from Washington each evening after the Senate finished its session. When told the employer was “Senator Jesse Helms,” the nurses really didn't believe her. The head nurse said, “Right. If Jesse Helms actually drives down from Washington to see your husband, he can waltz in here any hour of the night.”
That night about 11 p.m., Sen. Helms knocked at the ICU door and asked to see his friend. The ICU nurses were incredulous that it was he, and amazed at how low key and unobtrusive he was. He didn't make a fuss. He just wanted to see his friend. The nurses were impressed at witnessing a quiet human side they had never expected from a very public man.
Thomas Kennedy, M.D.
Salt Lake City, UT
I am a 61-year-old African American who remembers Jesse Helms from the 1960s to 2008. When he was a journalist on WRAL, I often wondered why he seemed to hate African Americans as he did. He upheld any and all negative views of African Americans. When he ran against Harvey Gantt, I was not surprised at the tactics he used to put fear in the white community.
I look at Jesse Helms as a man who was not ashamed of his hatred of black people, and the reason he was so well-loved by the white community is because they supported his views.
He spoke their views while they sat back and quietly approved them.
That is the only reason that Jesse Helms remained in the Senate as long as he did.
Ellen Bryant, 61
In 1993, I married Claude Armfield, Jr., retired from First Union. Before his First Union days he had become acquainted with Sen. Helms in Raleigh when he was in broadcasting. In 2001 Claude had open heart surgery and didn't recuperate from that as well as we had hoped. One morning my phone rang and when I answered, a voice at the other end said, “This is Jesse Helms.” Somehow he had heard about Claude's illness and was calling to check on him. They chatted for quite a while. This really boosted Claude's morale at a dark time in his life. I truly appreciated Sen. Helms' call. This is just another example of his thoughtfulness and kindness toward others.
In July of 1970, I was preparing to move to Raleigh from College Station, Texas, and was staying in the YMCA while I was buying a house. I had lived in Texas for seven years and thought I had experienced the nation's worst demagoguery. I was wrong!
After dinner, I walked into the TV room just in time to hear Jesse Helms' commentary on WRAL. I can't remember the exact words of his commentary, but I clearly remember how bigoted and racist they were, and I will never forget my reaction – I said out loud, “You've got to be kidding!” The reaction and nasty looks from those around me told me that I “wasn't in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.” One man took me aside after and said that such talk about Jesse around here would not “go down well.” He also said that Jesse was a “real Christian.” My reply was that he was acting like no Christian I had ever met.
After his election to the Senate, I found myself having to apologize over and over again for his demagoguery, both while on Navy duty and at my professional meetings.
I was working at WSOC-TV the year Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt debated. I was behind the camera that captured the wide shot of the two opponents. During the debate, Jesse kept scribbling at his podium and I assumed that he was making notes. After the debate and everyone left the studio, I went to the podium to retrieve the notes Jesse was making. As it turns out, during the entire debate, he was playing tic-tac-toe with himself.
On October 17, 1988, I mailed a letter to Sen. Jesse Helms on behalf of my father, Eugene R. Flynn, who had served in the Army during the Second World War. I told him that my father's uniform, medals, ribbons and patches were destroyed in a house fire. I wanted to replace them in some way as a gift as he was getting up in years. I asked for Sen. Helms' help.
On June 28, 1989, I received replacement medals and ribbons from my father's service thanks to Sen. Helms. I also received a letter, signed by Sen. Helms, that said:
“I am happy that these medals arrived at this particular time of year since we are going to soon observe the 4th of July and the independence of our country. It is from loyal fighting men like your father that this democracy has been preserved for future generations and for many more to come.”
My wife and I presented it to him as a gift at Christmas 1989. He was overtaken with emotion and could hardly talk when he saw the medals. He proudly hung them up at home where everyone could see them.
I never had the honor of meeting Sen. Helms in person but the service he provided for my father will forever be remembered by my family.
While I was a student at N.C. State, I worked for Fedex. Sen. Helms' office was on my route. He drove a very modest car, but I knew it was his because it had a U.S. Senate license plate. One day I jotted a note, basically saying thanks for his work in D.C. and to keep up the good fight, and just signed my name, no phone number or address, just my name. Around 8 that evening, my phone rang and it was Sen. Helms. He tracked me down and called me personally to say thank you for the note.
I count myself among those “disgusting people” Jesse Helms encouraged his fellow citizens to despise, especially when he was campaigning for election.
While Helms was tapping into an undeniably substantial incidence of homophobia in American society, it was the vigor and stridence of his hate-mongering that distinguished him from most others who shared his discomfort with people who are “different.” Few could match the enthusiastic loathing conveyed by his distinctive sneer when mouthing his condemnations.
If there is an accounting to be had in an afterlife, Helms may face perdition for the abuse his words heaped on children who were struggling with early recognition of their unconventional sexual orientation.
Richard H. Robinson Jr., 70