07/06/08 — Jesse Helms remembered as responsive to people's needs

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Jesse Helms remembered as responsive to people's needs

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 6, 2008 2:01 AM


Assistant News Editor

Longtime U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms wasn't from Wayne County, but, said many local residents and officials, that didn't stop him from caring about Goldsboro and the problems of the people who live here.

It was, said one-time legislative assistant and policy adviser David Rouzer of Johnston County, one of Helms' best qualities.

"If somebody came to him with a problem that was theirs, he considered it his," Rouzer said.

One of the biggest examples of that may have been his work with the tobacco quotas and the beginnings of the buyout.

But it also was a trait that Buck Jones of Pine Level experienced on a more personal level when he needed help getting his benefits from the Veterans Administration.

"Jesse Helms supported me when I needed support working through the VA system," Jones said. "He personally corresponded with me with me by mail and supported my efforts.

"I think he truly represented all of us."

State Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, gives another example -- a phone call he received in 1996 during Hurricane Fran.

"We were without electricity for about six days and I was at home during all this when I got a phone call and this voice says, 'Louis, this is Jesse Helms.' And I immediately was standing at attention," Pate said.

He explained that the senator was calling because he had been contacted by a woman whose child needed electricity to help him breath and Helms wanted his help.

So, Pate continued, he got in touch with the electric co-op, told them that Helms wanted this woman helped, and within just a few hours, she had her electricity back -- just in time for Helms' follow-up phone call.

"I don't know how many people he may have helped like that," Pate said. "That shows, I think, he had a lot of interest in people."

Even those who disagreed with him on policy issues, acknowledged that he did try to take care of his constituents.

"He was probably the very best on constituent work," state Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, said. "He liked people and he liked to help people. He was very concerned about the little people."

But, continued Rouzer, who worked for Helms for eight years, focused mostly on agricultural issues, that wasn't always the side people focused on.

"The media, in so many cases, portrayed him as mean and argumentative ... and he was anything but," he said. "And he certainly wasn't a racist. That one gets thrown about like it's fact. He had a lot of friends in the African American community, though there were a lot who didn't support him.

"But he was a great man -- always very honest and straightforward."

And caring, he added, telling yet another story -- one he believes really shows the kind of man Helms was.

"I was dealing with an issue one time and he could tell I was little bit off," Rouzer said. "And when I shared it with him, he cried, and when he cried, I cried. He was just that kind of man.

"I tell people that I got my formal education from N.C. State, but that I got my real education from Jesse Helms."

Still, Helms did have his flaws and his detractors.

"He was controversial, yes, because he was a very conservative individual," said Republican Wayne County Commissioner Andy Anderson.

However, on the day after his death, few people were willing to bring up those old disagreements, many deferring with a shake of the head and a polite, "No comment."

"I wouldn't want to, at his death, say he was this and he was that," Wayne County Commissioner John Bell said. "We just didn't agree on a lot of things. We were on opposite sides of everything. Everything I believed in, he was on the opposite side of that fence. But he would fight for what he believed in."

And that, added Kerr, was one thing almost everybody could appreciate -- that there were no secrets about what Jesse Helms believed in.

"He always knew where he stood. Whatever it was, right or wrong, he didn't pussyfoot about it," Kerr said.

That's why, even though Helms has been out of Congress for about five years, there will be those who will miss him and his conservative values.

"I'd like to see about 40 or 50 more up there just like him," Jones said. "He was steadfast in his beliefs."

And, Rouzer added, for him to die on the Fourth of July somehow just seemed appropriate.

"We got a constituent letter one time that said if (Helms) had been alive then, he would have been the first one to sign the Declaration of Independence," he said. "So the fact that he died on July Fourth, the same as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, I think is quite significant and not by accident."