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Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

Jesse's Personal Touch

Posted July 7, 2008 7:52 a.m. EDT

One of my first assignments as a rookie radio reporter right out of college was to cover the first Senate campaign Jesse Helms. The reason I was assigned to cover Helms was simple. He was expected to lose. The veteran reporters on our radio staff at WKIX were assigned to cover the expected Democratic winners. As you know Helms won his race that year along with Republican Jim Holshouser who became the first GOP governor of the 20th century.

Months earlier hints of Helms' interest in the Senate sparked numerous discussions in political science classes at UNC. Quite frankly Helms was not the most popular man among Carolina students. In his televised editorials he frequently criticized "the liberal leaning campus" and we, as students, frequently criticized him in class for being too rigid and conservative. Many of us were quite surprised when he actually took the political plunge.

What I personally think of Helms' politics is unimportant. However, I would like to tell you about my relationship with him. He was always accessible and friendly. Helms had the rare ability in a one-on-one setting to make you feel special and important. He had a nickname for me - "Skipper." Helms said I reminded him of Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles. They grew up together in Monroe and played in the high school band together. I liked my nickname because Skipper Bowles was one of my all-time favorite Tar Heels. He was a tireless public servant who loved North Carolina dearly. Bowles would have probably become governor had it not been for the Richard Nixon landslide victory of 1972.

This warm and personal touch helped Helms build a reputation for outstanding constituent services. If you needed help on something in Washington you knew Jesse was the man to call. He and his staff would make things happen.

What about you? What are your memories of Jesse Helms on the eve of his funeral?