Senator Jesse Alexander Helms, Jr. was born on October 18, 1921 in Monroe, North Carolina, the son of Jesse Alexander and Ethel Mae Helms. He was a seventh generation Helms’ family member to grow up in the small town of about 3,000. Helms was part of a close knit, but poor family, growing up with his brother Wriston (five years older) and sister Mary Elizabeth (eight years younger). During the Depression, Jesse Helms, Sr. served as both the police and fire chief. Helms first job was sweeping the floors of The Monroe Enquirer at the age of nine. That first experience working in a newspaper office propelled Helms into a news career. In high school Helms wrote a column entitled “The Day of Daze” for the same newspaper where he swept floor. By 1939, at age 18, he regularly wrote sports articles for The Monroe Journal, the Enquirer and The Charlotte News. Helms attended Wingate University for one year before a family friend recommended Wake Forest College for Helms to further his studies in journalism. Helms enrolled in Wake Forest College, taking a job on campus writing sports publicity and washing dishes at the boarding house where he stayed. A chance meeting with the managing editor of the Raleigh News & Observer led to an overnight proofreader job with the paper. Helms also wrote for as many papers as he could on a freelance basis. Holding four jobs and attending college proved to be no easy endeavor, but Helms remained undaunted. Through a series of events Helms went from overnight proofreader to full time sports writer with the News & Observer. Helms withdrew from his university studies to pursue his newspaper career. He explained in his 2005 memoir, “My own purpose back then wasn’t to get a diploma, it was to get the foundation needed for the jobs I wanted to have.”
Family and Career
Helms met his wife Dorothy while working at the News & Observer. Dorothy was just out of journalism school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and was editing the society pages for the paper. The pair formed a close and lasting friendship that lasted from their marriage on October 31, 1942 until Helms death in 2008. In the meantime he made a switch from the News & Observer to work as a city editor for The Raleigh Times and began his training for his enrollment in the Navy (Helms had joined after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor). Helms spent his four years in the Navy as a recruiter though he applied multiple times for sea duty and even once as an officer trainee. Most of his time was spent in Raleigh, with the exception of the almost year Helms spent stationed in Columbus, Georgia. Shortly after the birth of Helms first child, a daughter name Jane, he was discharged from the Navy. In December 1945, just before Christmas, Helms headed home. Upon returning home to Raleigh, Helms was offered a position as News Director of WCBT, a radio station in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Helms venture into radio proved to be an important one. Through his work he met the owner of a popular Raleigh radio station, A.J. Fletcher. In January 1948, Helms returned to Raleigh to work as News Director of WRAL and two newer statewide radio networks, operated by Capitol Broadcasting Company. Helms often referred to Fletcher as a father figure and credits him as one of the people who challenged him to flesh out his political beliefs. Helms first brush with politics was a 1950 Senate race. Fletcher’s former law partner Willis Smith was running for the Democratic seat against one-term Senator and former University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill President Dr. Frank Porter Graham. By the end of the campaign of which Helms gradually became involved it was clear that Helms had found an interest in politics. With the approval of Fletcher, Helms then joined Willis Smith as his administrative assistant for two years in Washington, D.C. before Smith’s untimely death. Upon returning to Raleigh in 1953, Helms became the Executive Director for the North Carolina Bankers Association. During that time, Helms made the run for a seat on the Raleigh City Council in 1957 and won. Though he never fully left the broadcasting world during his time at the Bankers Association (he hosted a short Sunday program call “Facts of the Matter: starting in 1958), Helms took a job as Executive Vice President for News Operations for the newly formed WRAL-TV and Capitol Broadcasting. Helms work writing and delivering daily editorials in a program called “Viewpoints” made him a household name and put WRAL-TV in the national spotlight for its innovative programming. By the early 1970s, Helms began considering a move to run for the United States Senate.
After the long campaign, Helms was shocked to find himself an elected U.S. Senator. Running against Congressman Nick Galifianakis, Helms was shocked to hear his name on the news when Walter Cronkite announced “Down in North Carolina, a fellow named Jesse Helms has been elected to the United States Senate.” Helms wrote in his 2005 memoir, “My father was with me on election night. I told him I hadn’t plan on winning and didn’t quite know what to do. Once again, he gave me straightforward advice: ‘Just keep your promises.’ For the next thirty years, that’s what I tried to do.” Helms was sworn into office in January 1973. As a U.S. Senator, Jesse Helms quickly rose to an influential place, often credited as a leader in the rise of the modern conservative movement. His work during the 1976 presidential election to help his longtime friend Ronald Reagan is well noted by political scholars and historians as being pivotal in the eventual election of Reagan to the White House. During that campaign, Helms, Dot, Reagan and Reagan’s wife Nancy traveled tirelessly across the state campaigning. Reagan had lost several primaries that year, but with the help of Helms, he won the North Carolina primary. Though Reagan did not go on to carry the nomination that year, the momentum built in the 1976 campaign cycle laid the critical groundwork for his future success. By 1978, the Raleigh News & Observer had dubbed Helms “Senator No” for his strong conviction to conservative principles. Helms proudly wore it as a badge of honor throughout his career. Helms spent his early Senate years becoming a master of the rules and processes. He routinely read everything he could on issues brought up for a vote and felt it was his duty and obligation to fully understand the facts before he affected his constituents with legislation. Helms was instrumental in the formation of the Senate Steering Committee, a committee designed to help formally organize positions and responses. From his first day in office, Helms made it a point to build a strong staff. Over the course of his 30 years in the Senate, Helms built a collection of employees who became more than “workers,” people who he fondly referred to as “Helms Family.” The issues on which Helms focused during his career were varied but were always deeply rooted to his conservative principles and to what he felt was his ultimate responsibility to God. A fierce anti-communist, Helms was a voice and champion for those seeking freedom and liberty. His well documented support of Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his vocal condemnation of dictators such as Fidel Castro earned him a top spot as a champion of democracy. Other issues on which Helms focused can be found on the Key Issues page. Helms took a great interest in foreign affairs, rising to the role of Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1995. He later became the first legislator to speak to the United Nations Security Council in January 2000.
In 2001, Helms announced he would not run for a sixth term in the United States Senate. Instead he returned to Raleigh and private life, spending time with his three children and seven grandchildren. On July 4, 2008, Senator Helms passed away after experiencing declining health. Senator Mitch McConnell, Helms former Chief of Staff Jimmy Broughton, and grandchildren Jennifer and Mike delivered the eulogy. His wife Dorothy still resides in their hometown and his important work continues through the programs of the Jesse Helms Center.