Dorothy ‘Dot’ Helms, widow of late Sen. Jesse Helms, dies at 96

A 1978 photo shows Sen. Jesse Helms giving his wife Dot a good luck kiss while waiting for election returns.
A 1978 photo shows Sen. Jesse Helms giving his wife Dot a good luck kiss while waiting for election returns. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Dorothy “Dot” Coble Helms, widow of the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, died Friday at the age of 96.

Family members and friends described Dot Helms as the rock of her family, a kind and gracious matriarch.

“She was always tough and she was always funny,” said granddaughter Jennifer Knox.

“When I think of Dot Helms, I think of the word ‘nice,’ ” said Carter Wrenn, a longtime political adviser to Jesse Helms. “I never heard her raise her voice. She was old style. She went to a lot of events with Jesse, but campaigning wasn’t her cup of tea.”

She was born Dorothy Coble in Raleigh in 1919. She and her roommate were the first females to receive journalism degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The dean of the journalism school advised the women to pursue another course of study.

“He said it was a men’s major,” said daughter Nancy Helms. “They said, ‘No, we’re not changing.’ 

After graduation, she worked at The News & Observer as a city reporter and later a society editor. It was at The N&O where she met her future husband, who worked as a sports reporter. They married in 1942 on Halloween, a holiday she loved and for which she always dressed up. She was fond of telling ghost stories at night at the family cottage at Topsail Island. Just two weeks ago, while in poor health, she reminded her daughters to get her Halloween costume ready.

While her own woman, Dot Helms was best known as the spouse of a rock-ribbed conservative. Jesse Helms opposed civil rights bills and appealed to voters with race-sensitive issues. Any foe of communism was a friend of his, including the apartheid regimes of South Africa and the former Rhodesia.

But Dot Helms had her own strong views as well.

“She was the conservative of the family,” Knox said.

Along the way, Dot Helms met and befriended world leaders like the Reagans and the Thatchers. After Ronald Reagan performed poorly in a debate, family lore has Dot Helms consoling Reagan on the phone, encouraging him to buck up.

Knox remembers her grandmother giving history tours of the U.S. Capitol.

“When I was about 10, she was showing me these old intricate tiles on the floor,” Knox said. “She got down on the floor and traced one of the tiles and cross-stitched it into a pillow.”

Dot Helms was very active in the founding and organization of the Jesse Helms Center at Wingate College, a think tank that is home to Helms’ papers. Margaret Thatcher presided over the ribbon cutting and gave the opening speech.

After Jesse Helms’ election to the Senate in 1972, the couple moved to Arlington, Va. Dot Helms was an inveterate doer and joiner in the nation’s capital. She volunteered at Gallaudet College and wrote a series of stories titled “Interesting Deaf Americans.” She was active in the Senate Ladies Bible Study and The Spouses of the Senate.

First Lady Hillary Clinton was an honored lunch guest at the spouses group soon after moving into the White House.

“Hillary wore a pantsuit, I’m sure a very nice one,” Knox said. “Grandma was appalled at that.”

Her interest in politics stayed to the end. Nancy Helms said that on a recent visit, her mother brightened up at the mention of the most recent Republican presidential debate. While Dot Helms liked many of the candidates, she had an opinion on their performance that night.

“She said Marco Rubio did a pretty good job,” Nancy Helms said.

In Raleigh, she helped found the Wake County chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and was active in the Colonel Polk Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Helms were both active in Camp Willow Run, a Christian youth camp on Lake Gaston.

Dot Helms is survived by her daughters Jane Knox and Nancy Helms and son Charles Helms; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

A service celebrating her life will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh.

Joseph Neff: 919-829-4516, @josephcneff