This is going to be very, very difficult to write. The tears are already welling up in my eyes, much as they have been since I heard the terrible news this weekend.
Friday night, the world lost one of the greatest people I have ever known: the incomparable Dr. Billy Helms. He served as the head of the Economics, Finance, and Legal Studies department at the University of Alabama for many years. But more importantly, he has served as my mentor for the last five years.
Of course, I had no idea how much he would mean to me when we met my freshman year. For those of you who didn’t know me then, or who might’ve forgotten, let me sum up freshman Stephanie in one word: lost. I started at Alabama as a chemical engineering major; after all, I wasn’t going to let a little thing like hating chemistry and engineering stand in my way! I didn’t enjoy my classes, my professors, or (to be frank) my fellow students. The stress built up so much that one engineering professor sent me to see a psychologist at the counseling center just months into my first semester.
Second semester, I didn’t sign up for a single engineering class. I got a letter from the school of engineering saying I would lose my extra scholarship money if I didn’t rectify the situation, but I could not have cared less. I was free!
Just one tiny problem… I no longer had a major, or even a college. The College of Arts & Sciences sounded unrestrictive enough for me, so I made an appointment to be advised. I felt like such a sheep, a number, nothing more than another 15-minute obligation on someone’s calendar. I left my appointment feeling defeated and more lost than ever.
Then one day, I realized I kind of enjoyed my required microeconomics class. Since I’d already given up on Arts & Sciences, I figured I might as well talk to somebody in the College of Commerce & Business Administration. One fateful day, I made my way to the third floor of Alston Hall for the first time; walked into the Economics, Finance, and Legal Studies office; and asked to speak to somebody about majoring in economics. That was the day I met Dr. Helms.
I wasn’t handed a pamphlet or asked to make an appointment for a later date. Dr. Helms, with that incredibly warm smile of his, welcomed me into his office right then and there. I don’t remember exactly how long I stayed, but I know I walked out with the next three years of my academic life planned for me.
Dr. Helms and his not so “invisible hand” (he was a finance guy, after all) started guiding me then, and I happily accepted the direction. I can’t even begin to guess how many times I went to visit his third floor office after that. Sometimes I would go by just to chat. Other times to get advised (under the table) so I wouldn’t have to go to talk to some stranger in Bidgood. Sometimes I would go to complain about how hard a course was and how I was going to fail (or, just as bad, get a B). He would listen patiently for a minute or two before he told me how ridiculous I was being, how easy the course was, and how I was much too smart to be challenged by the courses I complained about.
I could do anything because Dr. Helms believed in me. He pushed me to be the best; he made me my best. He is the reason I majored in economics and added a second major in math. He never could quite convince me to go the finance route or to be a University Scholar (get my bachelor’s and master’s degree concurrently), but let it be known that he tried. And he got his way when it came to most of the courses I took from sophomore year through grad school.
Every year, Dr. Helms hosted an honors barbecue in his backyard for all the top economics and finance students. It was always one of my favorite days of the year. My senior year, I was one of four Austin Cup scholars; I was top student for the Economics and Finance Department, and the other three scholars were the top students in their departments. As if that honor wasn’t enough, I was named the winner of the Austin Cup for top student in the entire business school. I’m not being modest when I say that Dr. Helms is the reason I won that award. He nominated me, and I know he fought for me. He was so proud when he handed me that award, and I was so thankful. As I walked away from the podium with my ridiculous trophy, he commented that there would be pictures later because, “We want to be famous someday because we are associated with you.” I loved that man.
Just a few weeks after that barbecue was the tornado that ravaged Tuscaloosa. My community was devastated, and my senior year came to an abrupt end. I’d somehow neglected to make any solid post-graduation plans myself, but luckily Dr. Helms had convinced me to apply for graduate school at Alabama. He also nominated me for a Graduate Council Fellowship that allowed me to go to graduate school for free with an unbelievable stipend.
In summary, he is the reason I have a bachelor’s degree. He is the reason I have a master’s degree. He is the reason I have a career. To say that I owe him a lot is a gross understatement; I owe him everything.
My story is not unique. In fact, my little brother Scotty was lucky enough to follow in my footsteps and have Dr. Helms’ guidance for the last three years. (Dr. Helms even convinced him to one-up me by getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years). And Scotty and I are just two of the thousands of students who Dr. Helms impacted. But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I never felt like one of thousands. He always made me feel special and instilled so much confidence in me. I’m so sad for the students who won’t have that support now that he’s gone.
I was fortunate enough to go back to Tuscaloosa in April with Mom and Scotty for one last barbecue (my fifth) at Dr. Helm’s house. He only gave out two awards that night, but he made sure to call me out in front of the entire crowd when another student won this year’s Austin Cup. I was so glad to be there to see him and tell him all about my job and just talk to him one last time. Of course, I didn’t know it would be the last time. And he was so full of life, as always, that I never could’ve guessed it would be the last time.
I am so angry at cancer for taking him away far too soon.
But I am determined to carry on his legacy somehow. I know he’s always with me, and I just hope to make him proud. I’d like to think that all he’d want is for me to live a happy life, but who am I kidding? He has much higher expectations than that.
I’ll miss you, Dr. Helms. Forever. Thank you.
|With my mentor. April 7, 2011|
|He was so happy and proud for my honor. Of course, he is the one who deserved to be honored.|
|Dr. Helms will always be family.|
|Always proud of his Austin Cup winners. And he demanded that he and I be in the center of this picture. <3 April 5, 2013|