Local Politics

Mourners attend Helms' visitation

Posted July 7, 2008 12:44 p.m. EDT
Updated October 18, 2011 9:37 a.m. EDT

— An honor guard of state troopers stood watch Monday while a slow but steady stream of mourners paid their respects to one of North Carolina's most powerful and controversial politicians, former Sen. Jesse Helms.

The Republican, who served in the Senate from 1973 to 2003, lay in repose in the sanctuary of Hayes Baptist Barton Church, 1800 Glenwood Ave., where he worshiped for decades.

Helms, 86, died of natural causes on Friday.

"Sen. Helms was one of the most consequential people that has ever served in the Senate of the United States," said longtime friend George Dunlop, who lived next to Helms for 25 years.

Flowers sent by U.S. senators and a painting of Helms at work decorated the front of the sanctuary. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who took Helms' seat when he retired at the beginning of the decade, also sent flowers.

Dunlop remembered Helms as a kind, principled man who mixed his conservative moral beliefs with politics – and as the father-figure who walked his bride down the aisle.

"He said, 'Let me tell you something, young man. You can always be prepared to compromise your preferences. But you will never be happy with yourself if you ever compromise your principles,'" Dunlop said.

After the public viewing at Hayes Barton, Helms' family received special guests and dignitaries. Funeral services will be held at the church Tuesday afternoon before a private burial.

The public can sign a condolence book in the state Capitol until Tuesday evening. The book will be sent to the Jesse Helms Center at Wingate University, his alma mater. (Share your condolences.)

Gov. Mike Easley ordered all North Carolina state flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of Helms until sunset Tuesday.

Memories of Helms differ

Helms, who spent five terms in the U.S. Senate, is remembered by many for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Ada Fisher, a member-elect of the Republican National Committee, said many African Americans recall Helms as a man who often fought civil-rights legislation.

"We didn't always agree on many things, but I did agree that he was going to do what he thought was right and he was going to serve the best interests of North Carolina," she said.

Fisher said she views Helms' legacy on civil-rights law differently.

"If all people are created equal, why do you need a separate bill? Why don't you just enforce the law?" Fisher said. "I thought that was flawless logic."

Helms also courted a reputation as "Senator No" for his frequent opposition to Democratic-sponsored legislation and for his blunt opinions.

Jimmy Broughton, Helms' former chief of staff, pointed to a difference in public perception of the senator and his private manner.

"I never would have worked with the man I read about in the newspaper or the editorial pages. But he was a very kind, gentle human being," Broughton said.

"Everybody now wants to give you sort of a political answer ... and he never gave a political answer to some of us on his staff," Broughton continued. "Occasionally, we would wince at some things he said, at the way he said them."

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kansas, recalled Helms' good working relationship with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle during their two decades together in the U.S. Senate. Dole also praised Helms' constituent services and thorough preparation for votes.

"If you disagreed with him, that was OK," Dole said. "One thing we have lost is civility, and Sen. Helms ... never forgot to be civil or courteous to someone on the other side of the issue."

That civility made Helms "the stabilizer of the Senate," Dole said.

Broughton said Helms was "a beloved senator among his colleagues, Democrats and Republicans."

"Jesse was Jesse. And he never changed; he was solid," Dole said.