It was May 1973. A newly built theme park straddled the Carolinas’ state line, welcoming its first season of visitors: Carowinds.
Newberry College student Jerry Helms drove through the trees to the park gates, looking for a summer job. He didn’t expect to stay for 42 years.
A Lincoln Continental drove toward him after he took a wrong turn in the parking lot. The driver brought him to the park offices, where he was hired as a security officer. Helms didn’t learn until later that the man who guided him was E. Pat Hall, the owner and creator of Carowinds.
“We generally hire anyone Mr. Hall brings through the door,” an employee told him.
Since that first year the park opened, Helms has touched all aspects of Carowinds, returning there for summers in college and taking a full-time job in security after graduate school. He’s literally a part of the park, the namesake for the “J.R. Helms Mining Company” sign on the entrance to the Carolina Goldrusher roller coaster.
My wife calls it an addiction, but I just call it a journey.
Jerry Helms, Carowinds VP of operations
Now known as “Uncle Jerry” by staff, he directs the park’s day-to-day functions as vice president of operations.
“It’s not been a job. My wife calls it an addiction, but I just call it a journey,” he said.
Helms almost didn’t return to the park after his first day of work, when he spent 12 hours in the hot sun making sure guests didn’t skip in line for rides. He said he returned home exhausted and ready to quit.
“My mom said, ‘You’ve never quit anything, you’re going back,’” Helms said.
Helms, who had planned to be a teacher, finds it rewarding to mentor the young staff at the park. Jermarr Reeves, Carowinds’ area manager over park operations, has worked alongside him for 22 seasons.
“We sort of see him as a father figure,” Reeves said.
Helms’ job has been interwoven with his personal life. During his second summer at the park, a friend introduced him to her best friend Irene, who handed out balloons to visitors.
Helms and Irene developed a friendship after being assigned to the same area of the park. At the end of the summer, he played guitar at her surprise birthday party. Helms said he was about to leave for graduate school and didn’t expect his crush to work out.
“As we were walking out, we looked at each other and I knew what a fool I’d been cause she felt the same way,” he said. They celebrated their 39th anniversary in May and have two sons, Jon, 32, and Mike, 26, who have also worked at the park.
“On anniversaries I still do give her balloons,” said Helms, who lives with his wife in Lake Wylie.
The rise of the park
When Carowinds opened in 1973, its biggest attractions were small rides such as the Powder Keg Flume and the Goldrusher, a smaller coaster still around today. The park’s skyline has grown dramatically since then, with 17 thrill rides and coasters, including the new Fury 325.
Family Leisure Centers, Kings Entertainment Co. and Paramount Communications have all been owners of Carowinds. Cedar Fair acquired Paramount’s parks in 2006, returning the park to its Carolina theme.
Helms said he loves Carowinds’ newly recovered traditions like the park theme song, which played during the 1970s.
Everything smelled like cedar, because it was all brand new. ... I thought, I will never learn my way around this place.
He said he takes pride in watching the park’s growth and its return to its roots.
“I love this area. I love this park,” he said.
On one of his first days at Carowinds, Helms said, he walked through the park near the Pirate Boat and a ride called the Flying Dutchman.
“I remember standing there and everything smelled like cedar, because it was all brand new,” he said. “And I looked across and I thought, I will never learn my way around this place.”
He walks every inch of the park in his operations job now, about 21/2 miles in distance excluding the parking lot, he said.
He said he remembers many of the older park landmarks that no longer exist, like the McClelland Chapel, where a band performed gospel music for families picnicking. Helms, who still plays guitar and harmonica, taught the band to play The Byrds’ song “Turn, Turn, Turn” for guests before a manager enforced the original set list.
Helms has met many celebrity visitors to the park since it opened, including Steve Martin, who was paid $100,000 to perform around 1978 in his “Saturday Night Live” heyday.
Jimmy Buffett came one afternoon in 1984, in the midst of a thunderstorm. All the electricity was knocked out in the Paladium as an audience waited for Buffet to perform.
Helms brought Buffet onstage to help announce that the show would be delayed, and the musician delivered the news with some mild cursing.
“I put my head down and thought, ‘I hope I still have a job!’” he said, but the show was a success.
Helms has worked in many areas of the park over the past few decades, even venturing to Spain and Las Vegas for two years to manage other Paramount parks. He returned home when Cedar Fair bought Carowinds.
Carowinds’ development has paralleled the growth in Mecklenburg and York counties, in part due to transportation projects Helms helped push.
Park management sent him to the Rock Hill Chamber of Commerce in 1994 to learn about road projects that would affect Carowinds and possibly improve traffic as they planned a new roller coaster.
He led the three “Pennies for Progress” projects, a 1 percent sales tax program that has funded the expansion of York County roads. The job was special to him because his father died in a traffic accident, he said.
“I’ve never seen him give up on anything,” said Sydney Pincay, park services area manager, who has worked with Helms for five years. “He always looks out for the well-being of others.”
Helms said his current job will likely be his last stop at Carowinds, which he calls his second home.
“It’s all just because I made the wrong turn in the parking lot,” Helms said.
Bacon: 704-358-5725; Twitter: @erindbacon