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Legacies Project Oral History: Ben Helmke

Wed, 01/15/2020 - 9:42am

When: 2020

Ben Helmke grew up on a farm in Pratt County, Kansas in the 1930s. He served as an organist in the Army chaplain’s office at Camp Schimmelpfennig (now Camp Sendai) in Japan. Helmke graduated from Hastings College and McCormick Seminary and got his masters in social work from the University of Michigan. He and his wife Polly raised three children and he started his own mental health clinic. Late in life, he came out as gay to his wife and children. He lived happily with his partner Len Quenon for 25 years.

Ben Helmke was interviewed by students from Skyline High School in Ann Arbor in 2016 as part of the Legacies Project.

Transcript

  • [00:00:09.59] BEN HELMKE: So I'm supposed to look at you, right?
  • [00:00:11.06] SPEAKER 1: Yes.
  • [00:00:11.81] BEN HELMKE: OK, all right.
  • [00:00:12.15] SPEAKER 1: Look a bit-- all right. Everybody's phones are at least silenced, right? Make sure mine is, too. Yup, OK. Phones are silenced. Call for a break at any time--
  • [00:00:22.56] BEN HELMKE: OK.
  • [00:00:23.03] SPEAKER 1: --water, anything, just let us know, and I'll take a quick break, grab that. We'll also stop-- I believe it's around the 42.
  • [00:00:32.51] CREW: 36.
  • [00:00:33.36] SPEAKER 1: 36-- so we'll stop at 11:36, wait for the bell.
  • [00:00:39.92] BEN HELMKE: Wait for the bell.
  • [00:00:40.65] SPEAKER 1: Probably wait until about 11:35.
  • [00:00:41.99] BEN HELMKE: I know the drill, yeah.
  • [00:00:43.92] SPEAKER 1: And, OK, let's start again.
  • [00:00:46.07] BEN HELMKE: What's Vineyard Vines, by the way?
  • [00:00:48.08] SPEAKER 1: It's a shirt company based out of-- I want to say Martha's Vineyard.
  • [00:00:54.54] BEN HELMKE: OK, all right.
  • [00:00:55.85] SPEAKER 1: It's kind of that area. So we'll start again, going through the first set of questions that we went through last time. I'll try to skip over stuff that I know we already didn't really have anything to talk about there. So I guess we'll start again with family naming history. Do you know any stories about your family name?
  • [00:01:17.26] BEN HELMKE: No, I do not. I could say, well, OK it is [INAUDIBLE], by the way. Did I go into that last time or not?
  • [00:01:25.39] SPEAKER 1: No.
  • [00:01:25.72] BEN HELMKE: But what [INAUDIBLE] is, that is one of the tribes that Bismarck took into his empire, and the name [INAUDIBLE] the M-K-E-N-E is [INAUDIBLE] ending, and there were quite a few of those that came into the Detroit area, but I was not a part of that. Ours were out in Kansas, so.
  • [00:01:46.66] SPEAKER 1: And then, are there any naming traditions in your family [INAUDIBLE]?
  • [00:01:49.60] BEN HELMKE: No, that we got rid of. My parents did not want to do the family name thing which had been done by most families, so we were all named according to wherever they were going into at that time.
  • [00:02:04.07] SPEAKER 1: Now we're going to do family migration. So why did your ancestors leave to come to the United States?
  • [00:02:10.28] BEN HELMKE: My grandfather came-- my paternal grandfather came-- as a reaction against Bismarck. He did not agree with Bismarck's policies-- he felt the person was more important than the state-- and when he came to this country, he was looking for farmland, because he did not approve of the way most of the farming was being done in this country. Not the farming, the foresting-- where they were destroying trees and so forth. He didn't agree with that, so he went west.
  • [00:02:41.02] SPEAKER 1: Do you know any stories about how your family first came to the United States, and where did they first settle?
  • [00:02:47.42] BEN HELMKE: Well, my one grandfather, he came in 1871, and one of the first places he went was to Yellowstone National Park. That was the year it opened-- he was touring the nation, figuring out, where did he want to settle? And they wound up in Kansas. There was some good farmland there, and that's what they were looking for. That was my one grandfather. The other one-- they came to the same area from Germany also. I think they were from what was eventually eastern Germany, and they came because apparently they weren't doing that well financially, and so they settled then on farms there in Kansas.
  • [00:03:28.42] CREW: The audio's weird.
  • [00:03:30.09] SPEAKER 1: Not working?
  • [00:03:30.69] CREW: Yeah, I need to make sure, because it's not sounding as much of the headphones. It's more like I could just hear him, I feel like. I just need to make sure it's--
  • [00:03:38.84] SPEAKER 1: OK, go ahead.
  • [00:03:39.78] SPEAKER 2: Sorry.
  • [00:03:40.38] SPEAKER 1: You guys do what you need to do.
  • [00:03:44.83] BEN HELMKE: It's weird, isn't it? It's hard to do the interview again.
  • [00:03:48.32] SPEAKER 1: Yeah.
  • [00:03:48.55] BEN HELMKE: I hadn't realized that it was going to be hard to do. I thought it would be easy, but this is just-- I thought we were done talking about that.
  • [00:03:54.98] SPEAKER 1: Right, exactly. It's a little bit odd.
  • [00:03:56.78] BEN HELMKE: Oh, nope. Whoops, I got to get this.
  • [00:03:58.46] SPEAKER 2: [INAUDIBLE].
  • [00:03:59.32] BEN HELMKE: Can I take that while we're stopped?
  • [00:04:00.78] SPEAKER 2: Yeah.
  • [00:04:01.26] SPEAKER 1: Go ahead.
  • [00:04:02.69] SPEAKER 2: Yeah. There's a buzz.
  • [00:04:05.07] BEN HELMKE: Hello. Yeah. She's in Suzuki music, and so then she is now enrolled in Canada, in British Columbia, in Vancouver-- going to school there, first year of college, so.
  • [00:04:24.26] SPEAKER 1: That's pretty cool. OK, so now we'll get back to it. Let's go-- so, your family. How did they make a living, either in the old country or in the United States?
  • [00:04:37.87] BEN HELMKE: OK. The Helmkes were always farmers. They are other than that in this country, but that's what they primarily were-- farmers. And in fact, I remember after World War II, we were corresponding with them after the war, made contact again. And they were-- I remember when they got their first tractor. Of course that was a whole new thing for them there in Norway-- Norway, I mean in Germany.
  • [00:05:10.69] SPEAKER 1: Why don't you just describe any family migration once they arrived in the United States and how they came to live in this area.
  • [00:05:17.31] BEN HELMKE: Oh, OK. They had settled in this one area of Kansas, about-- almost right in the center, and then there was a drought in Pratt County, which is a southern county, from 1890 to 1900-- 10-year drought. And so they could go there and sell the land that they had up further north, and they could buy more land at a cheaper price when they went down there, so they migrated down. They took a three days' trip of moving everything-- their cattle, all their farm stuff, and so forth-- and I guess they used a covered wagon for part of it, because they carried their cooking equipment, because it took them three days to do it.
  • [00:06:06.86] SPEAKER 1: So what possessions did they bring with them and why?
  • [00:06:11.32] BEN HELMKE: I think they probably brought virtually nothing from Germany, but when they moved down to Pratt County, they probably took their livestock, and personal possessions I guess, but then they probably didn't take their farm equipment, and so forth. They took their whole-- well, their livestock. There was horses, because all the farming was done with horses at that time, so they had-- and then they said they had a dairy herd and so forth.
  • [00:06:43.67] SPEAKER 1: So which family members came along or stayed behind?
  • [00:06:47.84] BEN HELMKE: Oh now, as far as that would be-- you're talking about here from Europe over? I think-- I don't really know.
  • [00:07:00.98] SPEAKER 1: So to your knowledge, did they make an effort to preserve any traditions or customs from their country of origin?
  • [00:07:07.61] BEN HELMKE: Not a lot. Their main thing, they were coming, and this was coming, there was World War I came along, so forth, and so there was feelings toward the Germans, so they pretty much destroyed much of their culture. I saw the contrast of the Germans with what the Swedes did, when they brought a lot more their traditions along, and they're from the same era.
  • [00:07:32.82] SPEAKER 1: Are there traditions that your family has given up or changed, and why?
  • [00:07:38.44] BEN HELMKE: Moving. It's a family that has always been on the move. Originally by horse or oxen, horse power and so forth, and then my granddad had one of the first cars. But no-- 1911 was when he got his first Model T.
  • [00:07:59.07] SPEAKER 1: So now we're going to go skip immigration part. So do you have any stories that have come down about your parents or grandparents, or even more distant ancestors?
  • [00:08:17.46] BEN HELMKE: The thing that happened-- and this is true many times of immigrants-- is that what happened in the old country pretty much stayed there, at least in our tradition, and so the only stories that we really had were those in this country, which in my case of course, that was 1871 and so forth. There was a lot of movement back and forth for those in Indiana and those who were in Kansas-- there were transportation. So they went by train and so forth, and saw each other. Had close contact with our cousins that were in Indiana.
  • [00:08:53.10] SPEAKER 1: Do you know any courtship stories? How did your parents, grandparents, and other relatives come to meet and marry?
  • [00:08:59.63] BEN HELMKE: Well-- my dad, when he turned-- when he got-- let me see. He didn't want to farm. He wanted to be an engineer on the railroad. And also he wasn't always needed at home, so he would leave. In fact, he was one of the hobos that would go out and be on the road, traveling, riding trains, and so forth. So he did that for a few years, and then he went out west. We spent quite a bit time out in the Salinas Valley-- he really liked being out there-- and then came back. And see, my parents, they lived-- grew up three or four miles from each other.
  • [00:09:46.08] They were in-- they were neighbors, but they were in parts of different communities. There was a German Lutheran community, which my dad was a part of, and my mother was more German Reform, and they oriented more toward Pratt. So there was a little different culture-- in fact, that German community is still there to this day. I was talking to a cousin on the phone a couple days ago, and he was telling about what was happening in that one community of the German Lutherans, and they're still pretty close there, how they deal with issues currently is still of interest to everybody around them, but they were separate.
  • [00:10:28.64] SPEAKER 1: Now we're going to work into your local residence, community, growing up-- so when you were really much younger.
  • [00:10:37.73] BEN HELMKE: I was younger, [INAUDIBLE]? I guess we all are. I'm sorry.
  • [00:10:44.00] SPEAKER 1: OK. So we go-- first off, where did you grow up, and what are your strongest memories of this place?
  • [00:10:51.26] BEN HELMKE: Well, strongest memories were of the farm and the farmyard, and what was happening there. And we had livestock and so forth. It was-- the house that I was born into, they just moved out there a few years before that, well, in fact, about the year that I was born. And so I remember that, and how they eventually decorated it and filled it, and eventually started out-- we always had running water and indoor plumbing and so forth, but we didn't have electricity. That came in when I was seven years old. And before that, it was kerosene lanterns and lamps and so forth, and heated with a coal stove in the dining room.
  • [00:11:45.89] SPEAKER 1: So next off, how did your family come to live there?
  • [00:11:49.61] BEN HELMKE: Well, they inherited it. My grandparents did very well in farming. They were frugal, but they also were hard workers, and the stories are that apparently my grandmother was the stronger one. That's what some of the neighbors talked about, that Fred did whatever she told him to do. So I don't know. But she-- they were a good couple. They farmed well together, worked well together, and she was actually a practical nurse kind of a thing. When there was there was a health problem in the neighborhood, she would go there, and take care of things and be there for however long they needed her. So she did that as well as doing her dairy.
  • [00:12:31.52] She had the dairy herd and so forth, and sold butter and eggs. Both of my grandmothers did that, and the stories were that the different people in town would want so-and-so's butter, so-and-so's eggs, that they were better. But the storekeeper had to be careful to maintain the politics of getting along with everybody, and promoting-- you know, he had to sell his stuff, so-- interesting.
  • [00:13:05.41] SPEAKER 1: So what was your house like growing up?
  • [00:13:07.99] BEN HELMKE: Well, it was a two-story house that was moved in there. It was moved from a farm north half a mile. My grandfather had bought moving equipment because someone else had bought the land, so we rented then, but then they moved all the buildings off, and that's what the Helmke brothers did, and our house was moved in. It was a two-story house, as I said-- basement and so forth. And so that's where I grew up.
  • [00:13:37.21] SPEAKER 1: How many people lived in the house with you when you were growing up, and what was their relationship to you?
  • [00:13:42.38] BEN HELMKE: Well, I had five sisters, my parents, and I was the only boy, and we really got along well. I mean, as I was thinking about that, and mother ran a pretty tight ship, and everybody got along. So I was close with all my sisters, really, until-- their entire lives. One left, my little sister, at the age of 83, is left, but the rest are gone.
  • [00:14:13.31] SPEAKER 1: So let me just skip a question. Just talking about languages-- I know you only spoke English in your house.
  • [00:14:21.86] BEN HELMKE: That's right.
  • [00:14:23.09] SPEAKER 1: So we're going to move on to family life. And first question-- what was your family like when you were a child?
  • [00:14:32.09] BEN HELMKE: Well, we were pretty well pretty much centered in the home. In fact, there was almost a split. My four older sisters, they pretty much stayed at home. The center was in the home, and then by the time my little sister and I came along, we were more oriented to our friends in Pratt nine miles away in school, so there was a somewhat change in how the family organized at that point. The center of the house was the dining room, the dining room table. Mother always did the washing on Monday for all eight of us, and there was a separate wash house out there, and she had that.
  • [00:15:13.22] And then the clothes would then come off the line, and be brought in, and then that was in the days of ironing, so the dining room table would be covered with clothes, and get all set, because then Tuesday, there were two or three ironing boards set up, and they were doing the ironing. Then everything would be cleaned up, and so we'd have all our meals there, but it was pretty much the center of the house.
  • [00:15:41.57] SPEAKER 1: So what sort of work did your father and mother do?
  • [00:15:45.65] BEN HELMKE: My mother was a homemaker, and it was her house, and her area. My dad was a farmer, and that was his farm, and his area. And they-- that's the way they worked, and it was a very clean understanding as to who did what. Now, he was a very innovative farmer. It was a good size operation. And in fact, by the time I came into it, it was one of the larger farms in the area. That was before the big farms that they have now. But we were farming-- first he started with a team of horses, and then gradually added on. In fact, he got his first tractor in the '20s.
  • [00:16:25.97] And so from then on, there would be a new tractor every few years, and then coming into the grain harvesting with a combine and so forth. So there was a lot of time we spent just working in the shop. Dad really enjoyed the engineering of the equipment almost more than the farming itself. Not that he wasn't a good farmer-- he was. Because in fact, he would have fresh seeds, and he would sell seeds to the neighbors some, and so that was just-- well, earlier on, it was a family farm with six cows, pigs, and then the farmland where we grew wheat and a variety of other crops. Now it's more of a monoculture than there was then.
  • [00:17:12.98] SPEAKER 1: And what is your earliest memory?
  • [00:17:16.81] BEN HELMKE: Oh. Well, OK-- we talked of that before. Can I tell that story again? It's harder than I thought it was going to be, but OK. I can't pull that one out for a minute. Early memories were, in the morning, Dad saying-- yell upstairs, saying, OK, time to get up. Dorothy, Flossie, Florence, Ruth, Ben, and [? Keele, ?] time to get up. So we would get up, and upstairs was not heated-- it was cold up there. So one at a time, so I grabbed-- put my clothes on, put those on, went to grab my shoes and go down, and put my shoes on behind the stool back behind the stove. That was a nice place to go.
  • [00:17:59.48] The one memory-- it was a good memory. I'd like to keep that. I don't know if I can get there or not. Oh, OK. We can cut this any place you want to, so OK. I can't get there this morning. Other memories. Oh, OK. On Sunday mornings, later on, we would listen to the radio. There'd be the Swings Over Jordan, which was a colored group-- that was the word back in those days-- and they sang gospel songs. That was on for half an hour, and then that was something [INAUDIBLE] something like that.
  • [00:18:41.50] And then would come on the Tabernacle Choir from Salt Lake City, and we would listen to that, and then we would leave the house at 9:30. Earlier on, the first car I remember was a 1925 Chevrolet touring car. Dad drove a 10 years, and never drove over 35 miles an hour. And it lasted him-- well it had to, because economics were rough during some of that time. So we'd get all-- everybody would get in the car, and we'd then go into church in Pratt.
  • [00:19:20.26] We went by all the other churches-- there was a church in Iuka and so forth-- but my dad had decided that-- he had left the Christian faith, and then got back in in his-- I mean, he was within his 30s, actually, and so then we were all in the Presbyterian church every Sunday morning, 9:30, and there until noon, and we'd be talking about-- after church, the people afterward. That was always kind of a fun time of talking with the people outside the church.
  • [00:19:55.22] One of the things that I remember-- this was on First Street in Pratt, Kansas-- and it was on the highway, highway 54, and you'd hear the trucks going by. And one of the things I remember was the sound of the gasoline trucks in those days. Because of static electricity, they would have a chain on to drain off electricity, you know. I could-- you can hear the chain then, especially as it went over the brick pavement. So I remember that. Then at the school, there would be various events going on.
  • [00:20:35.95] They would have community programs and school prayer-- this was back in the one room schoolhouse where we first went-- and Dad would be telling these-- he would have a thing that he would write. Well, he would just be talking in kind of a boring tone, and people were enjoying it. But I did not realize at the time-- I did later-- he had an incredible sense of timing, when to use what line in what story.
  • [00:21:04.81] SPEAKER 1: OK. So now we're going to go on to your routine and special activities. So we start off the first question with what was a typical day like in your pre-school years?
  • [00:21:18.00] BEN HELMKE: Pre-school years? Well, one memory that came early on. There was a-- OK, it was a grade school, one room schoolhouse. My older sisters were going there. Mother would drop me off, there's one road, and then I would walk down the road to the school before I was old enough to go to school. I'd spend the half day there, a day there, every once in a while.
  • [00:21:43.28] The teacher would be giving me things to do, like numbers, and so I was almost like a kindergarten kind of thing that I did, part of the time. That was a fun thing to do. The routine of the family was, at least with my sisters, was the dining room table at night, they would be doing their homework around the table, and that would be what they were doing, and I would be reading, usually in the living room, where we had the radio on.
  • [00:22:09.80] The radio was a big thing, always. They had the first radio in the community, in fact, back in the '20s, so that's where we listened to all the radio shows. Amos and Andy, and Fibber McGee and Molly, and all those. Lux Radio Hour. Plus, neighbors would come in some time. But it was-- sometimes, it was pretty boring.
  • [00:22:45.59] SPEAKER 1: OK. Looks like we're good on time right now. We still have?
  • [00:22:49.95] CREW: 10 minutes.
  • [00:22:50.81] SPEAKER 1: 10. 10:36, right? OK, so we'll stop at probably-- stop us at 10:35, 10:34. OK. So in these times, like preschool time, what did you do for fun?
  • [00:23:06.13] BEN HELMKE: What'd I do for fun? You know, I think in many ways, I didn't have a lot of fun. I was just doing stuff. I was in-- but as I'm thinking about it today, I had various-- I read a lot. That was one of the things. Every Saturday, we'd go to the library in Pratt, and check out a week's books-- bring home a stack of books, and read those. I did not do sports. I had-- it wasn't diagnosed at the time-- it was mild astigmatism, so I couldn't catch a ball.
  • [00:23:51.98] So it was decided-- I just wasn't involved in that, and then neither were my parents. So that was-- oh, music early on, yeah, because I was taking piano lessons from-- I don't know what age I started. But that became a big thing, was working on music.
  • [00:24:14.93] SPEAKER 1: Going on from this, did you have favorite toys, games, books, or entertainment such as making music?
  • [00:24:22.84] BEN HELMKE: Yeah. I can't remember so much toys. There was some brick things that fastened together. Right at the moment, I can't go anywhere with that.
  • [00:24:45.66] SPEAKER 1: Did you guys as a family have any special days, events, or family traditions that you had?
  • [00:24:51.67] BEN HELMKE: Well, the big thing in our household the community was Memorial Day in May. When they had, based on the old pattern, following the programs, the way it was done right after the Civil War, because that was when it started there in the town. We'd go to-- they would have a morning church service. There would be a special choir singing. They would do different things. Then there would be a march to the cemetery, which was about a half mile away, and then there would be some-- they would then shoot the guns off in commemoration, and then they would march around to all the graves of the veterans there was, and put flowers on those particular graves.
  • [00:25:35.79] That was a ceremony, which is, by the way, not as elaborate these days, but that same ceremony is still going on. Then they would do that, and then on the afternoon there would be a play or two, different things going on, an association meeting, but it was-- my dad was very involved in that. Actually, Mother was involved, and she had various groups and she belonged to. There were various couple clubs and so forth. But dad was-- he was a Kanza co-op, Iuka co-op at that time. A farm co-op, and the Presbyterian church, and then the one local tavern, Shorty's Tavern in Iuka.
  • [00:26:14.46] There was a place-- it was a filling station actually, right alongside the highway, and they would sell three-two beer there, so you could see who all was there by what pickups were parked in front. There were certain ones, they would gather there every day for their daily rations, and have a beer in the morning, and then talk and so forth. And so I was with Dad a lot. Yeah, I guess I spent a lot of time with him, just going around doing different things, and that was just what we did.
  • [00:26:49.63] SPEAKER 1: Looks like we're still good on time. We can get through a few more questions before that bell. So for school experiences, we'll go through preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and high school. So we'll start off with preschool-- where did you go, and what do you remember it?
  • [00:27:04.16] BEN HELMKE: Well, we didn't have preschool-- started with first grade, and there was only one other guy in my class. It was just the two of us early on, and it was a small school, and he was not that bright, really, looking back. And he's not alive any longer, anyway. So we had had stuff, and I remember one day going home from school-- we rode with them. The two families would go together to school. One would take us, the other would get us home.
  • [00:27:41.94] And anyway, we'd gotten our grade cards, and mine were always top grades, and his weren't that good. And he said, well, how come Benny's grades are higher than mine? Well, and his mother then, she went into the whole story, because Dad was president of the school board, and so forth and so forth, and the teacher gave them what grades he told her to give. OK.
  • [00:28:11.42] SPEAKER 1: OK.
  • [00:28:12.23] BEN HELMKE: He had better clothes than I did, but--
  • [00:28:14.99] SPEAKER 1: Wasn't as bright.
  • [00:28:17.07] BEN HELMKE: A lot of the time was spent with and about the neighbors.
  • [00:28:24.08] SPEAKER 1: So next, did you go to elementary school? Where, and what do you remember about it?
  • [00:28:28.96] BEN HELMKE: Well-- first was Eagle Valley School, and I remember-- this was in first grade, in 1936, and this was the year that Landon and Roosevelt were running. Well, the neighbors, they were Democrats, and my dad was a Republican, and so Leon and I got into a fight over the whole thing. I remember there was a bank out there-- a dirt bank-- and we were disagreeing on the politics at the age of six. That's really strange. You know, Dad was-- well, that was in the era where Republicans were of different parties than what they are now, of course, yeah. So that would be, OK, we had classes there up to the fifth grade.
  • [00:29:18.40] Well, then the thing that changed-- there was oil play going on. They were drilling for oil all around there, and there was some concern about that-- was that school really a safe place to be? Plus also, one of the women on the school board, she was agitating to close the school-- there was a few students there-- wanted to combine it with the Iuka school, which was a two-room schoolhouse. And so that then in fact happened, and we then went to Iuka, and then I had a couple of other classmates my age, which I really enjoy. That was really fun, because we got a few different things that we did there.
  • [00:29:53.86] They had a little auditorium there and so forth, so it was-- they had indoor plumbing there too. So I was there through the eighth grade. That was back in the days of-- at least, out in the country. First through eighth was the standard, and then I went to Pratt, which was nine miles away. My sisters had driven to Pratt to school, and I also drove, and so did my younger sister-- drove our own car in to high school. And then the question was in high school was, I'd go in to the first class in the morning there was an agricultural class, and there was music class for orchestra and band.
  • [00:30:34.36] Well, I couldn't do both. So we talked about it, and decided to do the music. So music was a major activity through high school. There were a group of us-- oh, about 10 guys and a comparable group of girls-- about the same age, that were more into music and that kind of thing. So I played string bass in the orchestra. And in fact, [INAUDIBLE], who used to-- who is no longer living, and Gretchen [INAUDIBLE] in Ann Arbor, they were key motivators for Interlaken.
  • [00:31:10.12] And also they came out of Wichita, Kansas, and did the-- [? Orion ?] did the Wichita symphony and also started a youth symphony, and so there were a couple of carloads of us that drove-- we were in high school-- every other Saturday to Wichita to play in the Wichita Youth Symphony, and we did that, and then Gretchen, she suggested I go to Interlaken, so I spent one year at Interlaken playing string bass. That was good, because I'd been thinking about being a musician.
  • [00:31:41.50] That was kind of what was going on, because I was playing piano and so forth. But then when I was at Interlaken, and I thought, no, I want music as an avocation, but I do not want to do it professionally. So my goal was to be the organist and choir director of the Presbyterian Church in Pratt, Kansas, in the farm. That's what I was planning while I was in high school. So when I graduated from high school-- as I said, it was a great time. We had a group of us that had a lot of fun together.
  • [00:32:07.67] We were doing a lot of going around different things and places. But then, after high school, I went to Bethany College, a small college there in Kansas, primarily for music. They had a very good organist there. [? Orion-- ?] [INAUDIBLE], they were from Sweden. It was a Swedish college, and it still is-- it is the longest history of doing the Messiah of any place in the US. Still being done every year. And it was just farmers and shopkeepers and so forth.
  • [00:32:46.02] CREW: [INAUDIBLE] it's 11:35, but the bell's going to ring in a few.
  • [00:32:51.38] BEN HELMKE: [INAUDIBLE] is it going? In 1937, we took a trip east, the whole family, '35 Plymouth. We had camping gear along if we wanted that. That was before motels, really. They had a few tourist places along the line. But we left Kansas, and went on to Missouri, and stopped there in [INAUDIBLE] Missouri, because we had my oldest sister's boyfriend along, and leaving him there with his-- where his mother was there in Missouri for the summer. That's what she did.
  • [00:33:24.00] And so then we went on, and it was a whole new experience for all of us. Everybody had their own place to sit in the car because it was eight people. Well, little kids but also-- I was seven. My sister was five. And so we went on, and we visited relatives in Indiana-- stopped there. And while we were there, we went to Fort Wayne, and went through an international truck factory, saw what that was like. Went on, and one of the stops that we stopped in was Niagara Falls. That was where my dad-- he saw that when he was in the army back in World War I.
  • [00:34:04.30] He wanted us all to see Niagara Falls, so we went there. And then in West Virginia, we stopped there. I had an uncle who was a missionary in the Presbyterian church there, and so we spent a couple of days there. And I don't know how long we were gone, but that was a big trip. Oh, and then coming back, we were coming along the Great Lakes, and they discovered that there was a boat that you could get, and go overnight from across Lake Erie, so they had to do that.
  • [00:34:36.95] So we then put the car on board, and we were all there in a couple of little state rooms. And that trip, that was really an exciting thing to do, to go by steamship at that time. And then that was-- the thing I remember was, we were traveling along, driving alongside Lake Erie, driving-- and there were all these people out there on the beach. That, to me, oh my gosh-- that looked incredible. And here I am in Michigan.
  • [00:35:09.57] CREW: [INAUDIBLE].
  • [00:35:12.36] SPEAKER 1: Great. We got that story done. So why don't you pause--
  • [00:35:17.48] CREW: It works.
  • [00:35:18.98] SPEAKER 1: All right. So now we're good to go. Let's see. All right, now we're going to go to popular culture during your youth. So could you describe for us the popular music at that time?
  • [00:35:36.64] BEN HELMKE: Well, I grew up-- because that was back in the days of sheet music, and so my sisters were taking piano lessons, so they had all the popular songs of that day, plus also what you hear on the radio. I was interested in classical music from day one, myself. That's what I was working on primarily. But yeah, we had all the 78s, for dancing and so forth at various school parties. The Pratt country club had periodic dances for the kids, and for those of us who had connections, that's where we would go. Then there would be school functions and so forth. But dancing, you know, was a popular thing. I enjoyed doing that.
  • [00:36:32.20] Yeah, I knew all the popular music, knew what it was, and remember-- but it wasn't any-- I never got into playing it, which is-- had I been around the jazz that was going on in places like Detroit or Kansas City at that time, which I wasn't even aware of, that would have turned me on, because the quality of what it was. But we thought of just our own, but our social group had a lot of parties we had at different homes.
  • [00:37:04.51] SPEAKER 1: OK. So maybe we can talk more-- did the music have any particular dances associated with it? So of the popular songs, were there certain dances that people would do?
  • [00:37:17.83] BEN HELMKE: Not so much back in that era. That came later.
  • [00:37:24.46] SPEAKER 1: So now we'll get into more some popular clothing, or even hairstyles.
  • [00:37:30.12] BEN HELMKE: Oh. Yeah. The oil had been mentioned earlier on, and what happened was-- see, we all-- right around there, we all had oil wells. And so here was money just coming out of the ground, which was very nice. And so I had-- well, in fact, Dad had started me on farming, so I had some farm income, so I was able to dress well, and there was plenty of-- my group did not wear jeans. We wore wool slacks, and then turned them up like this to show off our socks, because we had fancy socks.
  • [00:38:09.51] And the ads for the fancy socks were often in the New Yorker magazine, interwoven, and so-- I can't remember the brands, but there was a lot of them, so we had sharp socks, and I had about seven or eight pairs of wool slacks that were fairly full, and I'm misremembering some tweed pair of pants and so forth. And then we'd have-- the shirts were really neat. There would be two-- one pattern in the front, maybe, then a dark cloth in the back. They were-- we had those, and sport coats. We didn't wear the sports coats to school, but then you put the collars out, and then we'd have a suit for Sundays, something like that. And that was the uniform that I wore through high school.
  • [00:39:04.69] SPEAKER 1: So can you describe any other fads or styles from this era? Maybe the opposite gender or your own?
  • [00:39:11.75] CREW: [INAUDIBLE].
  • [00:39:15.63] BEN HELMKE: Not-- I can't really-- the clothes, they were-- one of the things that we would do when we would go to Wichita for the youth symphony, we would have a rehearsal in the morning over at Wichita U. That would be downtown in Wichita, and we could go shopping in Wichita instead of in Pratt-- that was more fun. Bigger town. There was [INAUDIBLE] department store, and so forth, so we'd look around and see what we could find in the way of things that we couldn't get at home.
  • [00:39:49.78] SPEAKER 1: Were there any slang terms, phrases, or words used then that aren't common in use today?
  • [00:39:55.21] BEN HELMKE: Oh, there was the evolution of language, whatever that is, but I can't remember anything in particular there was.
  • [00:40:05.01] SPEAKER 1: So what was a typical day for you like in this time period? So more into your youth and high school days.
  • [00:40:13.95] BEN HELMKE: My high school days, well, as I said, there'd be-- well, like it is here. You have classes, and change classes, and so forth. What they had, they had they had a junior college there. They had just started that in 1938, so that was about six years later, before I-- eight years before I came along. So they had-- what had been the original high school was now just the junior high school, and then we'd have classes back and forth, some in that building and then over in what was a combination high school and junior college. It was all in one building. And that was really-- between classes, we'd go out and smoke cigarettes. Everybody smoked. I did too-- I started when I was 14. Smoked till I was 45.
  • [00:41:02.25] SPEAKER 1: So what did you do for fun during this period?
  • [00:41:06.42] BEN HELMKE: I don't know what we did. There was a lot of running around, driving up and down Main Street-- you know, cruising Main, and a lot centered in cars, driving around, during that. I was not athletic. That came far later in my life, but I really can't-- we just did stuff. I can't remember anything in particular.
  • [00:41:36.15] SPEAKER 1: Did you have any special days, events, or family traditions from this time period?
  • [00:41:45.03] BEN HELMKE: Well, of course, the holidays. OK, starting in '38-- no, '41 was when my older sister got married. It was basically-- in the '40s, with my older sisters leaving home, and then there was a couple in the college or additional training, and this and that. So then the holidays would be a big thing when they would be coming home. In fact, during high school, my one sister was married a native Georgian. She moved to Georgia. They often came back for Christmas over the years, so Christmas was always a big time. And different family gathering around-- there would be-- I had 45 first cousins, and so there was-- family activities would be around that, and then everybody would pitch in, and bring things for the meal, and so forth.
  • [00:42:41.91] SPEAKER 1: OK. Did your family have any special sayings or expressions during this time?
  • [00:42:52.04] BEN HELMKE: Well, I remember-- what was it? This was later. Dad would talk in terms of having-- it was in Russia, would have the five-year plans and 10-plans. So we had our five-year plans and our 10-year plans and what we're doing on the farm, because we were always building and changing something there on the farm. In fact, when I was a little kid, Dad was talking in terms of developing a traditional farm with buildings that would last for centuries, and you know, you'd go on from one generation on the other on this particular place.
  • [00:43:26.44] That was his plan when I was young. Well, then when I came back, of course, from the army or somewhere along the line, he was building the last five to 10 years. There was a change in plans-- what happened? Said, I changed my mind. So that was always-- things were always-- change, or saying, wait a minute, let's do it this way instead of that way. So there were always things going on, and change like that. One of the little things, just a memory-- his neighbor across, the mile across from-- Ralph [? Honer. ?]
  • [00:44:10.02] He and Dad were both on the board for the Iuka co-op, they would often go together. Maybe Ralph would come over and pick up Dad, and they would go on over to go to Iuka, have the meetings. And then when they would come home, I'd see the car up front, and then Dad and Ralph would still be in the car talking, what seemed like sometimes a long time. And they were doing post business meetings or what, I don't know, but I remember that-- seeing them. They were talking about different things that were going on.
  • [00:44:38.65] And I asked Ralph's son Ross, who is still alive and a friend of mine, I said, well, do you have any idea what they were talking about? No way of knowing. Well, in fact, I remember the wife-- she was still alive a few years later. I talked with her not too many years ago. She had no idea what George and Ralph were talking about. In fact, that was a really sad thing that came along and out late high school, early college, he was out working in the shop, and somehow or another, an electrical fire started, and he was burned, and did not live.
  • [00:45:20.63] And that was in 1950, and that was really a shock, because here he had boys, young-- they are fairly young-- and here they were, having to do the farming. She was-- in fact, I remember her making the comment to me when I talked to her, maybe about 10 years ago-- talking, well, she said, you know George was always up and out and around, and she I would point to the boys saying, look, see, George is already at work, so you got to get out and get going.
  • [00:45:53.31] And in fact, Ross now-- he is, what? He is early 81, 82, something like-- he's finally retiring.
  • [00:46:03.62] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE].
  • [00:46:05.02] CREW: I think we're going to stop. [INAUDIBLE].
  • [00:46:08.31] SPEAKER 1: Oh, right. OK. So it looks like we have concluded with today's interview.
  • [00:46:14.52] BEN HELMKE: --project.
  • [00:46:15.39] SPEAKER 1: You ready? OK. First question. So did you have any changes in your family life during your school years?
  • [00:46:27.72] BEN HELMKE: Our grandparents' deaths, and deaths in the community. This was a farming community, and there were accidents of varying kinds, and disease and so forth. So there was-- I remember a cousin's death. A couple of cousins' deaths, and they were always a big deal, but you know, which death is. In my family, I had 45 first cousins-- I think I mentioned that before. And I think there was-- when I was in high school, 1941 I think it was, a cousin of mine was cutting wheat.
  • [00:47:10.93] He took a small combine and a tractor and went south to follow the wheat harvests, and cut wheat. And it was a tricycle, you know, the close wheels, first together in front, and so forth. He was in Texas, and something happened. It overturned, and he was killed instantly on that, and that was a real shock, because they had high hopes for that particular son of theirs.
  • [00:47:36.56] SPEAKER 1: Were there any special days, events, or family traditions you remember from this time?
  • [00:47:41.60] BEN HELMKE: Well, of course I think I mentioned the big winner was of course Memorial Day. That was-- my dad made a big deal out of that. And Iuka, Kansas-- amusing incident, we had had-- my dad had put together a kind of a military troop there to shoot guns and so forth for the Memorial Day. Well then, World War II came along and they were all in the army, or the service, so they couldn't do it. We had an Air Force Base there, and so they were able to get some guys from the Air Force to come in and do the Memorial Day parade thing, and so forth.
  • [00:48:18.51] Well, what happened was-- this was in Kansas, and this was-- well, no, it was actually we were very northern in our attitudes. That was where John Brown and so forth all did their work back in the Civil War. And so the whole theme was on the whole theme of the war, Civil War, and the songs from the Civil War, and some of those Air Force men were very shocked by that. They just couldn't-- it was not their view.
  • [00:48:53.75] SPEAKER 1: Which--
  • [00:48:55.16] CREW: When you answer the questions, can you start trying to say the question in your answer? It's not important--
  • [00:49:01.28] BEN HELMKE: Oh, OK.
  • [00:49:02.05] [INTERPOSING VOICES]
  • [00:49:02.65] BEN HELMKE: OK, very good. OK, can do. Yeah.
  • [00:49:07.16] SPEAKER 1: Which holidays did your family celebrate, how are holidays traditionally celebrated in your family, and has your family created its own traditions and celebrations?
  • [00:49:15.98] BEN HELMKE: Oh, creation of holidays in the family. The big thing was, of course, centered around the grandparents. In fact, I can remember going to-- both grandparents. That was always really a happy time because there were all these people gathered around there. Many people, actually. And my one grandfather always gave each of his grandchildren a silver dollar. That silver dollar was put in the bank. So each year, I had this bank deposit book. One year, two, three, four, up till five by the time when he died.
  • [00:49:50.69] So that was the only bank account I had until I got older, and then eventually-- I didn't get any interest on it. But we went to our church in Pratt, the Presbyterian church, for whatever was happening there. And then also, we usually went to something [INAUDIBLE] to the Lutheran church was where all the family were, and our neighbors, so we would go there for various holidays and so forth. Then in the little town of Iuka, which is where we lived, there were periods-- everybody went to the various events at the church there, and the community, because that was also-- these were our neighbors and our friends. It was always, always people oriented.
  • [00:50:37.40] SPEAKER 1: OK. What special food traditions does your family have? Have any recipes been preserved and passed down in your family from generation to generation? Are there family stories connected to the preparation of special foods?
  • [00:50:49.86] BEN HELMKE: Food preparation-- one of the big ones was my grandmother's fruit cookies. They were fine-- she didn't know how to write, and she would make these fruit cookies, but she did it all just from her memory. Finally, then, they wanted them written down. So for the newspaper, she wrote down these recipes, and that was an-- I in fact, still have the recipes. They were very good. Those fruit cookies were kind of a cookie fruitcake. That was one of the things. Then actually butchering season was always a big thing earlier on, because various families would get together and the relatives, and do butchering together.
  • [00:51:32.93] And they would also make lard, and make all the other things that you make-- various sausages and so forth. Then when it was all over, one of the things you would do-- my mother would make soap, have a big cauldron thing there, and would use all the leftover lard and so forth from the past period of time and so forth, put that all there and add lye to it, and make soap. And there was always a conflict or argument between Mother and Dad on the fire, because it was outside, and it was a big kettle, and a wood fire underneath it.
  • [00:52:08.07] That was an interesting time. That would create an interesting problem when she had the first automatic washer in that community, and she used the homemade soap because the farm clothes had a lot of oil and grease in them and so forth, and there were not soaps at that time that were very good on taking those things out. So she tried using her own homemade soap in the automatic washer for a while, but she finally gave it up when they came out with better soaps.
  • [00:52:40.34] SPEAKER 1: When thinking back in your school years, what important social or historical events were taking place at that time, and how did they personally affect you and your family?
  • [00:52:49.17] BEN HELMKE: Well one of the most interesting ones was in high school-- this was the mid '40s in Kansas-- and we had a couple of colored kids in our school, Pratt, who had been a division point for the Rock Island. And so there were Mexicans there, and some blacks, and so forth and well, we decided-- there were a couple of classmates. One in particular, Billy Hunter-- he was a very good athlete.
  • [00:53:18.79] And so when we came-- a couple of times, came through a situation where blacks were not welcome. And so we cut out, we did not go. We changed our plans, because it was very important to us, and I don't know if I had mentioned that before, but that was-- came out when I-- when he died, Billy Hunter, in Detroit-- I was at his service, and we could refer to him as "that colored kid." That was an acceptable word back in the '30s and '40s.
  • [00:53:49.29] SPEAKER 1: Now we're going to move on to adulthood, marriage, and family life. We're going to start with just your residence community. So first question-- after you finished high school, where did you live?
  • [00:54:03.50] BEN HELMKE: Oh, I was-- in high school, the summer after I graduated from high school, I spent the summer in Interlaken on a string bass scholarship. That was the summer that I decided, no, I was not going to become a professional musician. I was going to keep it as an important thing that I did in playing the organ, and directing the choir and so forth, but I was not going to pursue music as a career. I was going to be a farmer. And by the way, I wore my boots today, which-- still have them.
  • [00:54:36.79] Then I went to a couple years majoring in music at Bethany College in Kansas, which is still a very good school. They still have-- it's a small liberal arts college. I went there for two years working on organ and so forth, and then I was drafted in the army, and that was-- we didn't know what was going to happen. That was the Korean era. And I remember I went to Fort Sill basic in Oklahoma, and then came home for Christmas. Had to leave. Then I remember going to church and was there, and the interest and concern our friends at the church had, hoping that I was going to come out OK.
  • [00:55:19.09] It was really-- and I remember what the different ones said to me, and the support and encouragement they gave me at that time. I flew then from Wichita, Kansas to San Francisco. That was my first big flight, and it was-- we stopped-- was that a two or four-engine? I think it was a two-engine plane, something like that. But it was really interesting, because you can see the terrain. You were low enough. And it was interesting to me just to see the terrain and see farming practices and so forth, what was happening all the way out to California.
  • [00:55:56.23] I was met there but my aunt and uncle and my two cousins. Spent a couple of days with them, and then went to the Army, where I was going to be trans-- I was going to be transferred over to-- Korea was the assumption. And in fact, they were so short of cannoneers in Korea at that time that they flew some of us over instead of by troop ship, and so that was a long flight in those days. It was in three legs. I went to Hawaii, the first leg. And then to Wake Island, and then on to Japan. Well, when I got there, as I said, we were all set to go to Korea, but the 24th Infantry Division had just come back to Japan.
  • [00:56:40.63] And they were wanting to bring that back up to strength, and they discovered that I was a musician, so I was put in the Army Band, and that was fun. So I was playing this tuba which I played in high school, and also string bass. Well then they also-- they needed it an organist over at the chapel. Camp Schimmelpfennig. So I was put then-- I started playing the organ at the chapel, and they needed me there, there was nobody else to play. And so then there was a shortage in the chaplain's office, so I was transferred to the Army chaplain's office out of the band. Well, that was the 24th Infantry Division headquarters.
  • [00:57:23.66] That was when the draftees, many of them were college graduates-- in fact, some even with master's degrees. And I was around the kind of people, the guys I had not met around before. They were writing the newspaper, they were writing various things. They were sharp guys there. For their writing standards were the New Yorker, and that caliber, things that they really-- so I was exposed to something I had not really been exposed to before. Education was OK in Pratt, Kansas, but it was not at that level, and I came alive.
  • [00:58:00.94] None of them believed that I was a farmer. But OK, but-- no I was. And so I was there a year and a half. Got into photography, and had a lot of fun going around with that. And being in the division chaplain's office, we had a jeep and so we did a lot of touring around the islands there. The whole thing in Japan-- I took some leaves there. So I toured all of Japan. In fact, I took a 15 day leave to Thailand. We were able to do that, and that was interesting. I got there, I was touring around, I thought, hey, this is an interesting place to live.
  • [00:58:38.10] And so I ran across a guy. He ha come from the US, and he had stayed there after World War II. And we would talk with him, about, what about coming to Thailand, and living and working there? Because they had their farming methods were not what we have in this country, of course. And I got really interested, but he says, look, he says, Ben, go back to the US, get yourself a degree in agriculture. Then you will really be marketable. So I came back, and then farming things started going again, and I went to university to Nebraska for a term.
  • [00:59:13.48] I went to Nebraska instead of Kansas because it was a combination-- it was university and the state school were combined-- the agriculture were at the same area, so I could do good music as well as do the agricultural classes. But I went to school then, I had then become a different person. I could do scholarship, I was interested in learning. I was working basically 8:00 to 5:00 on my academic stuff that I was doing. I enjoyed ag school-- that was really interesting, and I learned a lot. Well, I got involved in the Westminster Fellowship, and then they were pushing me to become a Presbyterian minister.
  • [00:59:50.97] And everybody liked that idea. My family liked it, and so forth and so forth. So I was now two years in a term of college, and I switched careers, then switched over to history, went to Hastings College in Hastings Nebraska, which is a very good school by the way-- it still is. And got a degree in history. I became alive intellectually. I had never really-- well, in the army and the chaplain's office, that kind of happened-- there was an interesting group of people there, and in the division headquarters.
  • [01:00:22.41] But then when I really got into history, and enjoying doing the library, and doing all the kind of thing was fun. So I graduated there, and then went to Chicago from [INAUDIBLE] seminary, which was the top vestry and seminary. Well actually, it was the most liberal one in the whole country, and still is. A great school in Chicago. Went there, and now it's going to get interesting now. And I was taking a course in working with-- going to interviewing students and interviewing adults at the Cook County Hospital.
  • [01:01:01.32] I went there to take that particular program-- it looked like a better program to me. And so what I was doing, I was starting on that, and the guy running the program at Dixon, he started digging at me and seeing that I was not being-- I did not really know who I was, and the thing that emerged-- that one of the things that I had hidden for at that point, 25 years, was that I was gay. So what am I going to do? It just scared the hell out of me. That was still in the '50s-- was there any choices?
  • [01:01:36.91] Still hanging around at that time was the Freudian concept of psychoanalysis-- it was a disease that you could cure if you really got to know yourself. So I thought, oh, I can't do that. Wait a minute, I can. So I then went into psychoanalysis, seeing a psychiatrist, I think was up to four times a week-- complete with the couch, the whole shot. Did that, I got a special student rate, and was cured. And so then I was dating a woman at that time, and we were getting along real well, and it's-- but then how long was this going to take? We didn't know.
  • [01:02:12.85] So after about three years, Polly and I were going together, and we decided we wanted to get married eventually, and so I graduated then from seminary. We got married, and went to Indianapolis. There I was caught up in the whole-- as a liberal Presbyterian minister, and kind of a wordy kind of a guy, and really interested in what was going on. I got to be pretty sharp. And that was Indianapolis at that time, was a very conservative town-- John Birch Society.
  • [01:02:52.29] And they were waiting to figure out how could they get rid of me. Well, the minister of the church went to McCormick Seminary, and found out what I had been working on was on psychoanalysis because of gay issues. At that time, I mean everybody's saw-- being clear, OK, I was very straightforward and so forth. So they decided that there was this-- I would be working with young people-- needed to get rid of me. So I was given six months to relocate, moved up to Homer, Michigan. As Polly and I drove across the state line from Indiana to Michigan-- we're leaving for Foreign Service.
  • [01:03:34.65] Indiana was just a very conservative state at the time. So we went home in Michigan. Everything there was either worn out, rotted, obsolete, or whatever. I took it on, and we did a great job there, rebuilt everything. After six years, they were ready to make a decision as to what do they want to do next. That was not the thing that I would be most helpful for them, and I decided to go back to school. I wanted a master's in social work, so came over to Ann Arbor. Well, I interviewed state, but decided that the best place for me was U of M because of its community organization, other things that I was very heavily involved in.
  • [01:04:11.59] So I came over here then I wound up going to-- am I making this too long?
  • [01:04:16.05] SPEAKER 1: No. I think we're pretty good. You covered a good amount of what we're about to-- actually, why don't we-- you covered our, how do you come to live there, which is good. Let me--
  • [01:04:30.42] BEN HELMKE: Let me go on-- I've got-- I came over here to Ann Arbor, and intended just to go do two years, and then go out and do a combination of clergy and social work job. Presbyterians don't do that kind of a thing, and I went to Ypsilanti State Hospital, and I was turned on to what happened there, was happening with people at the mental hospital. And that was a good place south of town here, and I really loved it, and enjoyed working there, and really got into it, and did that for five years.
  • [01:05:04.27] But I was wanting to get into community mental health, so I left the hospital, and went to a community agency, a publicly funded program-- the Downriver area. Did that for a couple of years, and that was not doing what I wanted to do. And there was a new program where I could start my own agency, which I did. I started in the Downriver area. The question was, if I tried to do it in Ann Arbor, it would probably take two years to get an agency going or get a practice going.
  • [01:05:37.01] By the way, my wife had breast cancer by then, and so we didn't-- I haven't even mentioned that. No I hadn't, I guess. My wife had breast cancer diagnosed, and so I didn't know at that time how long she might live. And we had three little kids, and I was going to be the sole parent if that happened. So I checked around the Downriver area. My friends and I looked at it, and decided that probably in six months, I could be self-supporting. So I started a mental health agency, a tripod of psychology, psychiatry, and social work.
  • [01:06:11.10] In that time, it was way down in Woodhaven, and then that started there. Eventually then found a place in Taylor, and we had this little building there. It was like a grandma's house. The waiting room was in the kitchen. The coffee pot was always on, soup in the winter time, and we had-- we were before, in those days, very few men went into therapy. Our case loads were balanced out. We had equal men and women-- just, men were comfortable there.
  • [01:06:44.17] So that's what we did. I did that, and then the gay issue came back. And the thing when I talked to the psychiatrist about it, I said, well should I tell Polly what you know I've been working on? No, he says, I don't think you should. That was the biggest mistake I made, and that was a wrong professional decision for him to make, but that was in the '50s. That's the way we did things then. So OK, and eventually then I started getting active in the gay community, secretly. And eventually, I came out to my wife. And she says, well, why are you telling me now? Because she was coming-- she was, what, 10 years-- no, five years into years of breast cancer.
  • [01:07:25.17] Well, I did not want you to die, want to wish you were dead. I wanted to keep you alive as healthy as long as I can, but this is who I am. I just could not deny the feelings that were there. So it came out, and dealt with all of that, and her, and then came out of the kids on one Thanksgiving. That was quite a-- three kids were in-- they were home, two were in college, and one was still in high school over here at Pioneer. So, well, we got through it. Polly lived until '85. We had married in '60-- she died in '85. And it was a good closure-- we were back in a good relationship again.
  • [01:08:06.93] And then I was running the agency. I had that going-- that was fun. I could do things the way I thought they should be done, and damn it, they worked. It was interesting-- my wife was involved in the community, and that was during the Johnson era, and Vietnam was coming along then, and she was involved in the peace issues through the year, and I was involved in the Johnson programs that were in the Downriver area for mental health.
  • [01:08:38.40] So Johnson had two sides-- a side that was very positive and the side that was not right on that. So anyway, I did that. She died in '85, and then I just kept running the agency, and-- oh, bought a motorcycle. That was fun. I had a couple of Honda Magmas. They were cool. And-- doing OK?
  • [01:09:00.76] SPEAKER 1: Yeah. We're good. Just was checking for--
  • [01:09:02.70] BEN HELMKE: Oh, yeah. OK--
  • [01:09:04.33] CREW: [INAUDIBLE].
  • [01:09:04.87] BEN HELMKE: Yeah, this is coming-- we're doing OK. OK, so I did that, and then I was getting active in the gay community. That was when-- oh, she died in '85, and that was when the whole AIDS thing started coming up in '86, '87, right along in there. And so that was all of a sudden a whole other thing to have to deal with, a thing of safe sex and all that kind of stuff. So then I was, as I said, just doing motorcycling around-- I traveled a lot, just-- I've had all the stopped pretending and so forth, from my bike, and so I just did a lot of traveling around.
  • [01:09:43.36] I knew every road in Washtenaw County. That was fun. So, OK. Then in '89, I was at a party, dinner, and met a guy-- I had met him before-- and we got to talking. We talked about what we enjoyed doing. He enjoyed sailing, and he enjoyed skiing and camping and hiking. We talked about a lot of things that we'd like to do. He says, well, you want to go sailing sometime? Yeah. Sounds like fun. I've never been on a sailboat in my life.
  • [01:10:13.60] And so I didn't hear from him, and then in August 11th, got a phone call saying, hey, do you want to go sailing this weekend? Well, yes. I've got to work Saturday morning, but if you can pick me up at my office, OK. So I rode my bike to the office, and I had a room there, or a building there where I put my bike. Put it in there, and he picked me up. Went to Toledo. Got on a sailboat. And never got off the boat. I mean, not really-- but in effect, we got together. We were together 25 years. He was 65 that next spring, and retired, and I was 60.
  • [01:10:53.06] And so I put on a lot of plane mileage, because we were skiing in Colorado, and ski in Colorado, and sailing the Great Lakes. I boat chased around all the Great Lakes. We did all the Great Lakes for a few years, and that was just really fun. It was a fantastic time. So then I retired at 65. I'd moved to a smaller house, and he had moved in of course long before that. Had the small house, which I still have on the west side of Ann Arbor. It looks like a Colorado Ranger station.
  • [01:11:26.70] And we were together, and as I said, skiing and traveled the whole West. I have a camping trailer-- still have it-- and we did all of the national parks, and so we just did whatever we wanted to do, but we also worked. He worked some in his field, and I did work too. I got a license in Colorado and so forth, and then my oldest son had moved to Norway. He'd married a Norwegian, and so we went there a few times. And just doing things, taking care of our families, our grown kids and all that.
  • [01:12:03.34] Then he contracted Alzheimer's about, oh, eight or nine years ago, somewhere along the line, and that was advancing along, and then in 2010, I says, well, we've got to make a change here. This is not working for us to stay out here. So I started gradually getting things set up for us to move back to Ann Arbor, which we then did in 2010, about. I had the house here, and so we just gradually-- and to get him to slide into the issue comfortably took a couple of years.
  • [01:12:42.31] I had done some work and studying on Alzheimer's while I was in Colorado. We had a very good program at the Alzheimer's Association there. I'd gone down there in taking the classes, because I was doing a support group up in the mountains, which is where we were living. So we moved back to Ann Arbor. He was-- increasingly, he recognized I had to say, no, I am not comfortable with you driving, so forth and so forth. And he came along, and the whole family.
  • [01:13:14.07] We're doing very well, and yeah, we were doing well. The family was helpful and so forth. Came around. Then in '13, December '13, that was when we moved him into full time care down at Brecon Village, which has the best program, by the way, in the area, because I've checked them all out, and I'm not a shabby person figuring things out like that. So anyway, he was ready too, at that time. And when I got to Norway for Christmas, that just-- I just crashed. I was just exhausted. And I had to extend over a couple of weeks before I could come back.
  • [01:13:57.94] I wasn't in shape to go. Then I came back, and I called him every day while I was gone to Norway. We'd done that whenever we were apart, when he was during work, so we'd just talk on the phone every day. And so we came back, and we had him out of Brecon Village, and he was there full time. I'm so glad that I knew the field, because I knew what I had to do. Number one was get the whole family on board. I did not make a move until I had everybody agreeing to it. All his seven kids. They were not easy to mobilize, but they were used to skiing together, because we'd skied a lot together.
  • [01:14:35.40] So eventually we got it all worked out, and then he started declining even more. The key line was because I was taking care of it. At home first, and then I was there was a moment I went everyday down to Brecon Village. He says, well, he says, if it was the reverse, and I was taking care of you, I'd take care of you. And that stuck by me, because yes, that was what our contract was. And so then he died last December. He was Unitarian. I'm a Presbyterian. Did I? I didn't mention I'm a Presbyterian minister, but I am. We have to watch the time?
  • [01:15:11.85] SPEAKER 2: Yeah, it's going to--
  • [01:15:13.56] BEN HELMKE: OK.
  • [01:15:14.11] SPEAKER 2: A few seconds.
  • [01:15:15.72] BEN HELMKE: OK. Is the story going OK?
  • [01:15:17.58] SPEAKER 1: Yeah. It's great. It's fantastic.
  • [01:15:20.08] BEN HELMKE: OK. You got-- you can use of it what you want.
  • [01:15:23.14] SPEAKER 1: You know what? I-- you really got going there. You really-- I have a list of questions here I can ask.
  • [01:15:30.28] BEN HELMKE: OK.
  • [01:15:30.79] SPEAKER 1: And we can go over that, but I think you really hit-- I mean, looking at these questions, you hit everything that I had on the sheet, and could've talked and stopped you and said, OK, but I need to ask you this question now, but we're zooming there.
  • [01:15:45.63] BEN HELMKE: That's like when I went to-- have you ever see the Blue Cross? Well, I don't know what they have now, but back in '75, the Blue Cross Blue Shield building in Detroit.
  • [01:15:58.39] [BELL RINGS]
  • [01:16:00.65] Have you ever seen that building?
  • [01:16:01.96] SPEAKER 1: Yeah. Your mom works there.
  • [01:16:03.46] SPEAKER 2: Yeah, my mom works at Blue Cross.
  • [01:16:05.20] BEN HELMKE: Oh.
  • [01:16:05.91] SPEAKER 2: They're at the Renaissance--
  • [01:16:08.76] SPEAKER 1: Renaissance Center?
  • [01:16:09.84] SPEAKER 2: At the Renaissance Center.
  • [01:16:11.27] BEN HELMKE: Well, this-- that was when they were at-- they had their own building there. It looked like a fortress. It was huge, and I had heard about this program, and I went in there with my yellow pad and three pages of questions and so forth and so forth, and Charles [INAUDIBLE] was the one running the program. It was a really a neat program. Psychiatry, psychology, and social work. And so I was able to do one. So I started one and ran it and developed it.
  • [01:16:41.69] They did a lot of auditing of it, and it was eventually abused by the professionals. I don't know if you've ever heard of a tool, [INAUDIBLE]? If you're into it-- his whole thing is on-- he's a doctor, he's a surgeon. He's Indian from India, and he is describing what his concepts are, and what--
  • [01:17:11.48] [BELL RINGS]
  • [01:17:12.81] CREW: Dang it.
  • [01:17:13.26] BEN HELMKE: How many of those are there?
  • [01:17:15.06] CREW: Three, I think. [INAUDIBLE].
  • [01:17:16.64] SPEAKER 1: Yeah.
  • [01:17:17.55] BEN HELMKE: It's worse than my hearing aids. They talk sometimes. Well, ask me some questions. Let's take them for a while.
  • [01:17:25.84] SPEAKER 1: OK. Let me see. All right, here's one that we haven't talked about. Tell me about your children and what life was like when they were young and living in the house.
  • [01:17:36.33] BEN HELMKE: That was one of the things that Polly and I really felt very strongly about-- we wanted to have a family. That was, our commitment to the Presbyterian church and the social programs of the world, and our family, that was what was really important to us. So George was the first one, named after my dad. Born in '62. Two years later, Carolyn was born, and then two years later, Scott. Scott, when George went to kindergarten in Homer, Michigan, and then was just starting-- even in first grade he had, I think he was.
  • [01:18:12.18] Yeah, and so we came over, and we moved over to Ann Arbor, because I was starting school. We moved over to Ann Arbor, and so there were five of us, with three little kids, and a pregnant cat-- we didn't know she was pregnant at the time. We brought her along, we're in an apartment over on-- right north of Broadway Bridge. Crammed in there, moved over there, and I was there four terms, and got my master's. And we did a lot of-- we did quite a bit of a traveling, early on, varying things.
  • [01:18:47.67] They've been through the entire Ann Arbor school system, and George wound up going to Michigan State. He's an electrical engineer. He got a degree in electrical engineering from State. He decided he wanted to go there, and he had also been doing music all through high school. He had played-- he started on the string bass. I wanted him to play cello, and he did take it for one year, and he says, no, he said, I'm going to play bass. So OK, he took up string bass. Then over in Forsyth, he got involved in a jazz program there, and that was quite a program.
  • [01:19:27.23] Can't think of the guy's name right now-- who had the jazz program, and he got to George. George got to him, and so they really worked. In fact, he then got into Motown, really heavily into it, and then went to Interlaken for two weeks. I think once he [INAUDIBLE] the program up there. Doing a great job, and then when he was going to college, he got he got to playing electric bass, which is what became his instrument. And he really got into it, and started playing in a band.
  • [01:19:57.43] And while working on going on to school, I mean, he did every blue collar bar in Michigan playing bass. There was a group that he played with-- they did that-- they were practically professional. They were good. So then, OK. He was doing that, and playing bands, and so forth. And then, I really want a degree in music. I said, OK-- this one you're going to have to pay for. Bachelor's degree, yes. But beyond that, you're on your own. So the key person that he wanted to study with was Richard Davis in Madison, University of Wisconsin.
  • [01:20:38.98] He is still there and alive, so he went over there and got to know Richard Davis, and was-- to get his residency, he was working, and he did various jobs, and eventually got into doing the computer program for the school of-- one of the schools that has a graduate school and so forth. And so he was-- that led him into partly into what he was into, was numbers and so forth, or addresses. But then he met Tina. She was over there studying with Richard Davis-- she was from Norway.
  • [01:21:13.86] And they connected up, and got together. And so he then, when she went back to Norway after four terms, two years, she took him back with him. So I say, my oldest son was captured by a Norwegian, which he was. His career there is now in Norway. She is a classical and jazz bass player. She has some trios that are doing great. They do outstanding stuff. And George is doing very well, doing varying kinds of programs, both there in Norway and also for a large company in England that does software for printers.
  • [01:21:54.48] And the thing about George is, if he takes a problem on, he wants it done very well. He's very particular. And so, OK, that's where he is. I have one daughter who is now in Vancouver, is starting college there this year. She is of course bilingual, and she also knows Chinese. She was thinking about getting involved in that. Did an interview at State, and we'll see what happens on that. My daughter Carolyn, two years younger-- she has never gotten off the bicycle. She was riding in high school.
  • [01:22:23.46] Well, with her mother's cancer and death and so forth, she really was interested in health, and so she did a history-- she was history and political science I think, were her majors, but she was into social issues from day one. That's a big thing with her, and she wound up going out to California-- that's where she wanted to go. Upon graduation of college, she went west, and she wound up getting into bicycling, and developed programs in the Bay Area and so forth. Eventually wound up at Stanford where she has-- not faculty, but staff-- in the transportation department.
  • [01:22:58.41] And she just sent me a copy of a proposal that they're working on to do a study of transportation for the next 50 years at Stanford, very similar to one that's being developed here in town by the way. That's what she's doing, and I have a couple of proposals that she sent me. I can't keep track, but it's fun to read those things and see what she's doing. When she first left Stanford, she decided to go commercial for a while, and I was out there for the roast party they had for her when she left. It was funny as hell. She is a very cool woman, and she now has hooked up with a guy.
  • [01:23:37.74] He was having a problem getting divorced. He is now-- his divorce is final, so they can get married. They're in their 50s, but OK. And Scott, my youngest. He was in political-- he was in engineering, a computer engineer. Computer science engineer, is what his degree is. But then he had a problem with tendinitis and keyboards. Which is I think partially a genetic thing, and so then he was interested in music also. Then he got into sound, and that kind of thing, and he wound up then getting a job, and he's working for a place north side of Chicago on doing high end sound for a company that rents out equipment.
  • [01:24:17.88] And he does-- he'll do sound himself, but also he maintains your equipment, and he does some inventing things along the way. He designs and builds microphones. I had him in town a week ago to do the recording of a thing that we had at First Presbyterian Church, and he did a recording on that, and it was pretty good. It was not done-- well, he went over to Norway, and he and George did a commercial-- did a professional recording of one of the things that Tina was working on. And it's great-- he has a good eye, beautiful design.
  • [01:24:55.33] All three of them are picky as hell in whatever they do, which-- yeah, OK, every couple of years I'll write a letter to Polly just for the fun of it and tell her what's happening, and how pleased she would be with how they've done, and what they've-- exactly right. They're going completely what we wanted to see happen. They're neat people, and their sense of values is fantastic. They don't screw around. Well, they do, but in a good sense. So that's where they are.
  • [01:25:29.54] And they really look after me. Both-- I'm fortunate. I hear my friends complaining about the computers-- who's going to help me with this or that? Well, George and Scott both have access to my computer. They take care of it.
  • [01:25:45.48] SPEAKER 1: I'm going to look through here real quick, see if I can find a question I want to ask.
  • [01:25:51.48] BEN HELMKE: The key line is, Len and I between us have 10 kids, which is pretty good for a couple of faggots.
  • [01:25:58.81] SPEAKER 1: That's great. How about this. Why don't we go ask this-- what did your family enjoy doing together when your kids were still at home?
  • [01:26:17.70] BEN HELMKE: We're always building something. I had a lot of energy then. Still do, if I get healthy again. And so we were always doing something, and we had this small house on the West side. It was a small ranch starter house. And we decided-- each of the kids wanted their own bedroom. We took the basement. I was working on that. We made a family room down there, and a couple of bedrooms, and so forth and so forth. Maximum space. And we were walking along, and George was sawing on something.
  • [01:26:47.22] He said, Dad, I want to quit sawing. I want to go out and play. I said, do you want a room of your own? He says, yes. Keep sawing. And then when we got the bigger house there. It needed a lot of work done on it. He actually did the major work on a sunroom that we added with a hot tub in it and so forth, that kind of thing. And a was a lot of it was just working together on various kind of projects around the house. We traveled quite a bit. We did some camping.
  • [01:27:15.90] I probably hit-- Polly and I the first summer when we were married and had a five weeks' vacation, we hit all the state parks in Michigan. Just went around the great-- around Michigan. So again, that was just something we were traveling. We went to Kansas every once in a while. If we had the money, we would fly. Or depending on-- we sometimes flew. Drove quite a bit instead, and camped and all of that. Polly was very good at stretching a buck.
  • [01:27:51.27] I mean, our kids grew up poor in some senses in that there was not money for a lot of things, because I as a Presbyterian minister, I wasn't making a lot of money earlier on, and then starting the agency, I had no federal funding for that, so we really had to work. But the kids-- you know, I feel my only concern now is I'm getting old. How can I make my last days pleasant for them? Which means it has to be pleasant for me too, of course, but that's-- OK, so we're there.
  • [01:28:30.95] We're pretty close in our own way. Carolyn travels a lot. The guy she is with, they have a tandem bike, and she-- they bought a bigger car to hold a tandem bike, and they're out all the time.
  • [01:28:48.82] SPEAKER 1: We're doing-- oh, we probably can wrap up then, right? OK.
  • [01:28:53.44] SPEAKER 3: Can I ask a question?
  • [01:28:54.15] BEN HELMKE: Yeah.
  • [01:28:56.22] SPEAKER 3: How did your children react when you came out to them?
  • [01:28:59.66] BEN HELMKE: That was hell for a couple of years. That was-- you see, that was back in the '80s, and we were not even-- that was a far different situation than it was now, and Polly didn't want me to come out to the kids. First, I had to come out to her, and she didn't want me to do it, but I did. And then coming out with the kids-- someone called me long distance from somewhere, asked me how I was doing, because I told him the plan was to come out-- the kids were all home for Thanksgiving.
  • [01:29:30.21] Polly and I talked about it-- this is what we're going to do. So we staged it. We did a-- we were going to do a Thanksgiving dinner and so forth. And I was grilling the turkey. I had an oven that had a rotisserie thing on and so forth. The turkey caught on fire. OK. Then we just-- there was always something interesting happening. So my daughter-- oh, Carolyn works at Jacobson's, and what she gained at Jacobson's was, she improved her taste in clothes. More expensive clothes.
  • [01:30:05.41] SPEAKER 1: Of course. all right. So we're good.
  • [01:30:09.94] BEN HELMKE: Yeah. How far do you want to go with the gay issue, feel comfortable.
  • [01:30:13.74] SPEAKER 1: OK. we will I'm sure we'll definitely talk about it. It'll definitely be one of our probably major things--
  • [01:30:23.77] CREW: So we're going into family life now. So I'd like you to tell me a little about your married and family life. First, tell me about your spouse.
  • [01:30:31.39] BEN HELMKE: Well, my wife Polly and I, we got married in 1960. Even before, we were going together in Chicago. I was in a meeting at her apartment in Chicago, and it was snowing outside-- it was really snowing. The meeting ended, and everybody left. She says, let's go for a walk. And so we did. We walked to Lake Michigan, which is about half a mile away. It was snowing hard. Cars stopped and offered us a ride. We walked on over to Lake Michigan, and then went back to her apartment, then went on home.
  • [01:31:00.79] And that in a way is almost symbolic of our relationship. We were always taking on challenges. And I dated someone else for a while first, and then-- I'd known her all the way along, and we got together. We both had the same goals of marriage-- family and so forth, and community, and the church, and all that, and that's what we did. So then we were married in '60, and had two years later, had George, who is now in Norway, and he's doing very well. He's a programmer, and his wife is a bass player, but he also plays bass.
  • [01:31:39.10] But she is one of Norway's classical jazz bassists who is really doing a lot of CDs and so forth. So anyway. And then our daughter Carolyn-- she was born two years later, and she is in California. She is-- basically, her field is transportation. She did a lot of the bike development in the Bay Area back, oh, 10 years ago or something like that. And then she's at Stanford, and they have quite a plan program there of developing transportation. In fact, the program that she is in the process of doing is very similar to one they're doing here in Ann Arbor on transportation needs for the next 50 years.
  • [01:32:21.47] So that's what she's doing-- and my son Scott, two years later. He is north of Chicago in Lake Forest. He is a-- he does sound. He's working for a high end sound company, and he has to see to the heavy equipment, and so forth, and so forth, and he sometimes does shows. He also designs and makes his own microphones. They're beautiful to see. Anything that he does is good. But no, really, and then the thing that happened was that my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in '69.
  • [01:32:56.17] And so we just decided to stay here in Ann Arbor because we knew he'd get good care here, and so that's where-- she worked 17 years before she died actually, breast cancer. She originally was a coordinator of volunteer services, department of social services. And I was developing my own agency down in Taylor. It was a mental health center for families. That was when family treatment was a fairly new thing, and that's what I did. And so that's what we were doing.
  • [01:33:26.02] I was home on the weekends, because I was working during the week, and [INAUDIBLE] to be home. And so we traveled a lot. We traveled pretty much the whole nation. We also had a cabin up north, in-- well, actually, Central Michigan, up in Six Lakes. And so-- yeah. They're all neat kids, and they're doing well. They have a sense of values, which is just fantastic. Polly and I would-- she would be so pleased with how they are, and what they're doing, and so forth.
  • [01:33:57.35] So as I said, we did a lot. We were always building and doing something, working on something, like in the small house that we had first there on Walter Drive, which is not very far from here. We put the two bedrooms the basement for George and Scott, and then also had a family room down there. We wanted a larger house, so we had one off on Orkney, just off of Sunset. That was a fun house. There was still shag carpeting in the house, so we just left it there. It was multicolored. Pizza stains didn't show. Red wine stains didn't show.
  • [01:34:40.24] It was just great for kids, and that era, which was a little different than it is now, I think. So then that's where it was. They were all OK. George and Scott-- no, George and Carolyn-- were in college then. George was at Michigan State, and Karen was at Wisconsin, and then Scott then started the next fall, and then a few years later then, got a smaller house-- that was too big. But there-- I was just talking with George this morning about some family things, and he said he needed to work out some things.
  • [01:35:14.50] He wasn't comfortable with his relationship with his sister. He said he probably [? wouldn't ?] always see you-- we won't all be together again until you die. I said, well, I don't know-- that's 10 years at least. Well, that's my prediction, and my medical people say that I probably got 10 years. OK, well, that's now 9 and 1/2 since I first raised that question. God, that's scary. By a month, it decreases. But anyway, I said, no, I said, we can work on that, and I'll see what we can work out in talking with each other and so forth.
  • [01:35:56.05] It was-- well, it was really, and is, an important part of my life, and again, they're each on their own, doing their own thing, and we're relating in pretty good shape. My relationship with my daughter is a little s-- no, it's OK. We are-- she made that comment one time that one of the things that bothered her was that she was too much like me, and she wasn't sure she liked that. So anyway.
  • [01:36:28.69] SPEAKER 2: What was it like when you were dating your spouse?
  • [01:36:32.11] BEN HELMKE: Well, that was back in the '50s. That was in Chicago. We did a lot of things together. As an example, we'd known each other, I said, for a couple of years, and then I was-- we were going to be doing a joint program. We were planning a weekend with a group that we were belonging to. Fourth Presbyterian church had a very active young adult group, and 25 to 35-year-old people, about 400 in the group, and it was people that primarily looking for a mate-- or an awful lot-- or a social life.
  • [01:37:10.65] That's what it was, a very active program. And so we were planning this retreat, and we started going together. Well, can we get along well enough to do this? We did. We worked it out. So yeah, but we worked-- we always worked around-- I was a consultant for her work, and she was the best critique I've ever had in my agency, but we had separate offices, we worked in separate places. She worked here in town, and I was at the Downriver area. So I never have had anyone quite comparable to her in critiquing what I was doing in the way of work.
  • [01:37:55.29] SPEAKER 2: Tell us about your engagement and your wedding.
  • [01:37:58.47] BEN HELMKE: Our wedding, that was an exciting time. That was in Chicago, and we were engaged, what? Oh, maybe eight months, something like that. And it was in-- the wedding was there in Chicago, and our friends were all there. We had a reception then at her brother's and sister in-law's in Willamette. They had a large house up there, and so we did it, went up there for that. It was interesting in going from where we were married, which is at Fulton and Halsted in town, Chicago, and the reception was up in Willamette. [INAUDIBLE] communities north.
  • [01:38:36.57] That was also the day of a football game at Northwestern. So they were getting people across town, and the traffic, and that kind of thing. People would arrive-- took them a while to get there. But we honeymooned in Vermont. That summer, I had been working to make some money. I drove for the car-- well, actually what it was, I was driving.
  • [01:39:01.11] It was the Republican Convention in 1960, and I was driving a car, and I was driving for [? Concelia ?] Bailey, who had been vice governor of Vermont. I said, I'm getting married. We're talking about going to the Smokies, and so she said, well, you really need to come to Vermont. October, that's a perfect time. And sure enough, it was. So we saw fall colors in Vermont, and really enjoyed that. So it was a beautiful time.
  • [01:39:26.86] SPEAKER 2: OK, and then we're just going to repeat all of that for your other spouse.
  • [01:39:30.03] BEN HELMKE: Do what?
  • [01:39:30.73] SPEAKER 2: We're going to repeat all of that for your other spouse.
  • [01:39:33.96] BEN HELMKE: Oh. Oh, yeah. OK. Right. OK. Different kind of a story, different time, and different situation. You're neat. Sneaky, but neat. No, what happened with Len, I met him at a party here in town, and we were talking about we liked to do. He was 64, soon to be 65, and I was 59, soon to be 60, and we were talking about what we enjoyed in the way of camping and hiking, and all those kinds of things. And at the end of the conversation, he says, well, do you want to go sailing sometime?
  • [01:40:11.17] I said, well, yeah. Sounds like fun. Give me a call. So I gave him my phone number and so forth. Didn't hear from him, and then on August the 10th, he called, and said, Ben, do you want to go sailing this weekend? I says, yeah. I've got to work Saturday morning, so pick me up at my office in Taylor. So I rode my motorcycle there, and he picked me up. We went down to Toledo, and we went to Monroe, which is where the boat was, and we had to motor all the way-- there was no wind.
  • [01:40:38.55] So we motored all the way to Toledo, were there, went to a jazz club that night. There was a jazz bar in Toledo-- beautiful jazz. Had dinner and so forth, and we spent the weekend together, and I thought, this looks OK. So I checked out-- I knew we were in the same social group in Ann Arbor, gays. And so was checking around, and found out, who is this guy? He checked out-- he was OK. And so I was-- so I literally never got off the boat.
  • [01:41:14.85] And so it was not really a courtship-- we just got together, and then eventually he moved in in about a year's time, something like that, and then eventually, when he retired, then he bought a place in Colorado, and I was still having to run the agency, so that's what I was doing. So it was just really a very short courtship. Between us, we have 10 kids-- that's pretty good for a couple of faggots. I used that one, I think, before.
  • [01:41:44.61] SPEAKER 2: Yeah.
  • [01:41:45.47] BEN HELMKE: OK. But it's a good one. I'm close with all of his kids too, and they-- he had resolved all of his issues, and I had resolved all of mine, so when we got together, it was just a case of having fun. And so whether there will be a third relationship or not, we don't know yet. Hey, I'm only 85. And passed for 75 in most places.
  • [01:42:21.73] SPEAKER 2: Are there any special days, events, or family traditions that you practice that differed from your childhood traditions?
  • [01:42:29.50] BEN HELMKE: Oh, from childhood on through.
  • [01:42:31.52] SPEAKER 2: No, that were different from your childhood.
  • [01:42:33.61] BEN HELMKE: Different from my childhood. Oh, yes, in that I don't have extended family around. And that was true-- I mean, growing up, I had 45 first cousins, and we were-- the holidays and so forth, it was a big thing. And well, with Len's family in Colorado, there was a similar feeling with one of his brothers, and his wife and their children. So we were around there, out at Vail area. But the thing that Polly and I learned-- it dawned on us, here we were-- I was a Presbyterian minister. We lived-- we were in Indianapolis, and then in Homer, Michigan, and so forth.
  • [01:43:17.17] We were not around family, and holidays was basically when there was something happening in the church. So we just had decided we had to create our own traditions and start from scratch, which we did. That was great. In Homer, we had a lot of fun there, and it was really a beautiful time. And then we came to Ann Arbor, and that was a good time. We had various things happening there, and still do. In fact, I was at a memorial service Saturday for the son of some friends. The son was the same age as George, and they were in junior high and high school together.
  • [01:43:56.63] And as I was looking around there at that service, I was seeing-- all of a sudden, realizing the commonality of some of the people over the 50 years. It really was a beautiful thing. Well, also, and then Saturday evening, went to the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. Was having their 50th anniversary, and that was really interesting. I didn't see very many people that I knew. I saw a few, but it was mainly just a different [INAUDIBLE]. How many people, 85, are that active?
  • [01:44:33.55] You know, there were a few people around that I'd known from before, but it was 40, 30 years ago that was everybody that we were associating with and being with on peace and justice issues. There were some things like on the whole Vietnam era, and my wife was very active in that. Because I wasn't as active because I was working running the agency, but she was very active in First Presbyterian church, and was where I am now-- I'm active there.
  • [01:45:04.66] But it's interesting that I now have the kind of continuity in my life that I had in the community when I was growing up. In other words, I was around people when I grew up that I had known all my life, and my parents had known always, and now I am acquiring that kind of a connection here in Ann Arbor, so I'm really enjoying it. So you're mentioning the comment about Glacier Hills. A lot of people I know go to Glacier Hills, but I'm not going to Glacier Hills. If I wind up somewhere, it would be at Brecon Village down in Ann Arbor-Saline.
  • [01:45:50.74] SPEAKER 2: What was the popular music of the time, and did it have any particular dances associated--
  • [01:45:55.87] BEN HELMKE: Well, of course, when I was-- which era?
  • [01:46:03.23] SPEAKER 2: Adult years.
  • [01:46:04.43] BEN HELMKE: My adult years.
  • [01:46:05.67] SPEAKER 2: Yes.
  • [01:46:05.96] BEN HELMKE: Well, that was what I really liked coming to Ann Arbor, and I still enjoy, and that is the music here, the arts and so forth. Because-- it's crossed my mind-- because music was a big thing with me. I was very active in music. And if I was still living in Kansas, I'd be still having to do what I was doing 60 years ago, 70 years ago-- yeah, 70 years ago. I would be having to create much of the music that was there. Whereas here, I can just sit back and relax, and everybody else does.
  • [01:46:35.75] We've got a great music program at First Presbyterian Church, a great choir, and I'm not playing the organ again, but I don't really need to because there's two great organists there for a magnificent instrument there at First Presbyterian Church. So I just kind of enjoy what's around me.
  • [01:46:58.47] SPEAKER 2: I think that you've hinted at some of these.
  • [01:47:00.93] CREW: I think we're covered on most of them, most of these.
  • [01:47:05.00] SPEAKER 2: Did we do important social or historical events taking place? Yeah, we did. Right? I think so.
  • [01:47:12.99] BEN HELMKE: We covered most everything?
  • [01:47:15.11] CREW: Of that one. Now we're on to Part Five, work and retirement.
  • [01:47:20.11] BEN HELMKE: Which retirement? Yep. We haven't talked about retirement.
  • [01:47:26.50] CREW: Did we?
  • [01:47:26.97] BEN HELMKE: Oh, no we did not. We did not. For me, I have to talk about retirement the first time I retired. I retired at the age of 30 from being a Kansas farmer. Yeah, I had the equipment and everything else, so I left that, and then became a Presbyterian minister and so forth. I retired at 65 because I was wanting to spend time with Len, and so I sold my agency that I had developed in the Downriver area. And that was very demanding-- it was hard work.
  • [01:47:58.61] So I sold that, and then went to Colorado, and that was great, but then I got bored. So then I reactivated my social worker license in Colorado, and then worked out there doing basically the same thing. It was interesting working with 9-11, 9-1-1, and a different set of problems than what we had in Michigan. Colorado was not as advanced in mental health as Michigan. Of course, Michigan, because of the [INAUDIBLE] cutbacks, doesn't have-- we just can't do what we were doing.
  • [01:48:36.53] But I was doing various things out there, and I said I was doing this one program, but then for me to do emergency work and so forth, I would have cooperation with everybody around me, but I could not find some of the resources I needed at times. So in the middle of the night, I might still be over across the Vail pass over there in the winter in Colorado, and I didn't like that idea, so I quit from that. I thought my kids would be happier if I was not driving in the middle of the night on mountain roads.
  • [01:49:10.35] So did that, and then when Len came back to-- when we came back to Colorado five years ago, because of Len's Alzheimer's, then I went to work finding the right program for him, which I then did down at Brecon Village and so forth. And he died last December, and I'm still in recovery, but now I'm in the process of setting up to go back to work. I'm going to be working about 10 to 12 hours a week. I have my own schedule on that kind of thing. What I wanted to do is work with families and older people on the transitions of life, especially if you're moving to the older age things.
  • [01:49:49.07] And the advantage I have, being old-- which I am, I'm 85-- and older people are comfortable with me, because we can joke back and forth, and kind of understand each other, and so forth. And I'm pretty good at communicating to their kids, saying, OK, here's a way to come at it. In fact, George and I were just talking about another part of that this morning, something that we should have done differently 40 years ago.
  • [01:50:16.80] But I mean-- we did what we could, what we thought of at that time, but now I see it a little differently, and see how we could have done things a little better. And so that's what I'm wanting to do, and also I really miss the connection with other professionals. And I don't think I'm avoiding anything, but it's just that I think it would be more fun to be working 10 hours a week. Does that makes sense?
  • [01:50:44.22] CREW: Yeah.
  • [01:50:53.01] BEN HELMKE: What have we missed?
  • [01:50:54.28] CREW: I don't-- a lot of these, we've already covered.
  • [01:50:56.65] BEN HELMKE: Well, OK. In retirement, I also started riding a motorcycle. Well, that was before I retired. That was fun. And sailed-- I don't know. Part of me would kind of like to get back into [INAUDIBLE] again, but not on a motorcycle. My balance is not that good. And also, motorcycles-- there, you got to know what you're doing on that. You have to keep both eyes in the rearview mirrors as well as ahead all the time, so it's tricky.
  • [01:51:25.92] CREW: What do you value most about what you did for a living, and why?
  • [01:51:30.64] BEN HELMKE: I finally wound up in the field that I dearly love, love still, and that's mental health. I'm happiest with the situation-- the more difficult it is, the more I enjoy it. And I was-- anyplace that I've worked, at least in my later years, has been give me the cases nobody else wants, because I like the challenge. And usually, can come somewhere with something-- you do the best you can with what you got, and so that's-- I like a challenge.
  • [01:52:07.84] CREW: And what's the biggest difference in your primary field of employment from the time you started until now?
  • [01:52:12.99] BEN HELMKE: What was what?
  • [01:52:14.12] CREW: What's the biggest difference from the time you started until now?
  • [01:52:17.75] BEN HELMKE: OK. This morning's Ann Arbor news was an article on the selling of Eloise-- Eloise Hospital in Westland. It was originally a poor farm, then it became a whatever, and then they had a mental hospital, and it was still going when I went to work in mental health. In fact, we pulled together-- that was one of my jobs, was to pull together people from all the mental health hospitals. Eloise, [? Ipsey, ?] Northville, and so forth. There were four or five of them, something like that.
  • [01:52:59.55] [INAUDIBLE] hospital pulled them together to work on programs for putting people back in the community, and that was what we did. Most of those places are now closed. And the mistake we made was we did not-- we assumed that the money would follow from the State Hospital to the community. It didn't. You got all these homeless people now. And so a lot of them did not need to be hospitalized with people-- they didn't know what else to do with people in many cases.
  • [01:53:28.73] They didn't start any medications until in the late '60s, when chlorpromazine came out. And so that's all changed. There are now better things available, and there are programs, and people [INAUDIBLE] in the community, and I tend to think now of the problems of things that are not in good shape now because they're not-- things now that are not in good shape. In fact, just been a cutback in funds here, so. But we do know a lot more about mental health now than we did 50 years ago.
  • [01:54:08.48] CREW: How do you feel about your current living situation?
  • [01:54:11.86] BEN HELMKE: I love it. I have the house up on Orkney was just too big for me, and so-- even though I had an apartment that I rented out and so forth. But I thought I might look for a place to live. Oh my gosh. So I made a list of open houses from the newspaper, and spent the day driving around on a Sunday going from open house to open house. I was tired. Well, I says, I got one more on the list, and there was a-- well, I'll just go take a look. Went over and took a look at it. I says, oh my gosh, this is it.
  • [01:54:43.48] My house is on the west side here of Ann Arbor. It's down the street a couple of miles. It was built in 1975 by Al Roebuck when he was 25 years old. He designed and built-- that was his first house-- and I took one look at the outside, and was, oh my gosh. This is it, I think. Looked inside, and I says, yes, this is it. And so I bought it about 20 years ago, and I've been updating it in various ways. The fun thing is is that Al is still in town, and anything that I do want, he does.
  • [01:55:14.35] And the joke is that when I get old and die, he and his wife are going to move back in there, because that's where they started out their marriage. She likes the idea, because I like the house. But it's convenient for everything, and I've got public transportation if I want it, so yeah, I am where I want to be.
  • [01:55:41.72] CREW: How did family life change for you when you and/or your spouse retired and all the children left home?
  • [01:55:48.63] BEN HELMKE: Well, of course, when my wife died, we still had-- we sat down, we were talking about-- George-- he still had more college to go. Carolyn had a couple of years to go, and Scott hadn't even started college yet. And so we figured out, judging on what it had cost per year for that-- they all went to-- she was at [INAUDIBLE] Wisconsin, and George and Scott were here in Michigan State. So what's it going to cost? That was a main concern, to be able to pay for their college, which we did all the way through their bachelor's degrees for the three of them.
  • [01:56:26.88] So that was our main concern, and then what was left with the-- I was on my own. Well, she said, this is what we've got and good luck. So then she died. And with Len, I saw it coming on, and then moved him into Brecon Village, and he was there, and then all of his kids, his ex-wife, and I were all with him right there in the room there down at Brecon Village, telling him, goodbye. It's OK to go. You're free to leave. You can die. That's OK with us. We love you and care about you, but OK. And so he died. So here I am.
  • [01:57:12.62] CREW: We're going to need to pause, because the bell's about to ring.
  • [01:57:14.77] BEN HELMKE: You have to wait for the [? crew? ?] So that is the sign of my own coming back into being a healthy person again is, OK, notice that. I'm getting back into action here. Well, OK. I told this story back earlier on. I was in psychoanalysis back in the '50s using the neo-Freudian approach of curing being gay, because it was considered then a mental illness. OK. So I went to that, but I decided to do psychoanalysis, which I did. Complete on the couch.
  • [01:57:48.70] Now I remember when I was telling the story to your friend yesterday. On the couch, the psychiatrist, and so forth here, back with the notepad, and that was in the days of smoking. And I had an ashtray on my chest, and I would smoke two or three cigarettes in that hour's time. I can't believe that air, but anyway, that's what it was. And then we were coming along and doing really good work, and all of a sudden, I got very frightened. I had this picture, this very frightening picture-- it was a gray-- I can still see the gray color of the room.
  • [01:58:23.77] Just a poor paint or something in that stingy, dingy room and so forth. And there were all kinds of people around, and it was scary. Something was happening, but I couldn't figure out what. We were never able to figure out what in that whole scene. That was just as far as we could get with it-- couldn't probe any more. Then some years later, back when I was doing the agency and mental health, and we had various programs, including doing [INAUDIBLE] and everything else, and the same scene came back again.
  • [01:58:54.87] Well, I was home for a family thing, and all my sisters were there, and family was together, and we were talking, and my one sister, Ruth, who was five years older than me, she says, well, you know, she says, it was really a scary time, scary thing. That was in 1930 or '31, and she was five years, and she says, it was really scary-- that was when my dad had appendicitis. And he had a ruptured appendicitis, and that was when people basically didn't live from that.
  • [01:59:23.99] And so everybody was there-- both the grandparents were all there. Dr. Campbell was there, the family doctor-- he was there, and there were these two guys, and they had the ambulance, and they came there, and they were taking Dad to the hospital. And she was just-- I was so scared. I couldn't be in the room. I was outside looking in the window. There was a little bench out there that she extended through that window. And I says, oh my god as a chill went through me. That was it.
  • [01:59:52.07] I was probably a year old, and that was a very-- well, that was a frightening time in all the family, because my dad was a key person in the family, and they thought he might not live. They had just then discovered a new way of treating with appendicitis, and they did live. He had been dealing with it, actually, for many years, and he would have times when he couldn't work, and so forth, and so forth. He was farming, and that kind of thing, but kept going.
  • [02:00:21.29] Well then, his health, all of a sudden he got well, and he was healthy and he was strong. And at about the same time, he then-- he had been-- he had left the church and he'd joined the church, and he left the Missouri [INAUDIBLE] church, and then became a Presbyterian, and the whole family got involved. Their main-- my dad's main activities-- was the Presbyterian Church in Pratt, Kansas, and the Iuka co-op. It was a farm cooperative in Kansas, and he was key in that from 1930 until in the '50s.
  • [02:00:55.58] In fact, I still belong to it now. It's now the Kanza co-op, and it just expanded again. It has-- it had probably around 14 to 15 different sizes. It was around $100 million operation the last time that I saw. I was out there this last candidate, this last spring, for the 100th anniversary. My cousin from California was there, and so we had a great time, just spending four days together traveling around. But that was an early memory. I was less-- about a year old. Is that a fully complete storytelling of it?
  • [02:01:32.46] CREW: Yes.
  • [02:01:35.44] BEN HELMKE: No-- see, I was the only son. I had five sisters. And so when Dad then got healthy-- but then his mother died about a year, in about '31, and he was very close with her, and then his dad died in around '34, '35, something like that, and he was very close with his parents. Well, in fact, he was the one that they turned to to take care of things. He was not the oldest, but he was one they could rely on. And so I was a little kid, and I spent a lot of time with him.
  • [02:02:11.82] Fact, the story told by someone was one time, he was going somewhere, and I wanted to go along, and I often went with him wherever he was going, just kind of followed him around. And he went by himself. And the room was like-- and I was pounding on the floor-- Daddy makes Benny mad, Daddy makes Benny mad. So anyway. So and again, and I became his confidant really. He was a storyteller. Incredible sense of timing.
  • [02:02:40.92] Time-- I don't know if you know about timing, but the timing of anything is just key. In farming, it was key on when you plant, what exactly to pick in the right time, to do anything on a farm. You have to have things happen just at the right time, if at all possible. In fact, we had a large operation, and keeping track-- keeping track in your mind all the different fields. See, we were farming in over two counties, and for that day-- they're much bigger now, but that was, for that day, it was a pretty big operation.
  • [02:03:15.40] And in the morning, I'd have to stop and think, as I was then active in it-- OK, here is all that's happening in these various fields. Just have to run him through my mind. What is needed, where? What do I have in the way of equipment? What do I have in the way of workers? And so forth. And Dad was good at that, of course. That was his-- that was what he did, and he also was a storyteller. He had this very-- Mark Twain talks about storytelling, and the Kansas way of telling stories is, it's a very dry monotone, but the timing is perfect. Has to be.
  • [02:03:53.30] CREW: What big historical events had an impact on your life?
  • [02:03:58.70] BEN HELMKE: OK-- a very interesting one in Kansas, in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, they do the signing of the peace treaty every four or five years. They reenact that-- it's the thing that they do. And that was a big thing to go to every four or five years. They have Indians there, they would do the powwows, and all that kind of thing. They have a natural theater there, with cliffs and so forth. And so that was the thing that we always did, was to go to the Medicine Lodge powwow.
  • [02:04:34.76] For me, the main holiday, the main time for me is All Saints' Day. That is, you know, October the 31st-- [INAUDIBLE] remember that's Halloween also. But also, that is when we remember the people in our past, and that's become a bigger-- well hell, I'm 85. I know more people dead than I do alive.
  • [02:04:59.82] CREW: What heirlooms and keepsakes and mementos do you possess, and what's their story, and why are they valuable to you?
  • [02:05:05.63] BEN HELMKE: Mementos?
  • [02:05:06.82] CREW: Yeah.
  • [02:05:08.25] BEN HELMKE: Well, one I don't have-- I've debated what I want to try and get that. When I was 15, 16, I've forgotten which Christmas it was-- my dad gave me a 16 gauge shotgun. Well, this was Kansas-- we were farmers, and we hunted, and so forth, and so forth. And that was really a special gift. I was really thrilled with getting that, and the gun-- it had its own history. So I had that. Well then I kept it. Then when we were in Ann Arbor, we had a radial arm saw we bought when they first came out back in the '50s, and I said, OK, Dad, what I will do is I will trade my shotgun for the radial arm saw.
  • [02:05:56.50] And so, OK. So I got it, and I've used it a lot. But then the shotgun-- then my one nephew in Kansas, he got the shotgun somehow or another. And I was talking with him about could I get that back somehow, or something like that? Because I was hunting a few years ago, and no, he says, he didn't do that kind of thing. He didn't loan his guns out to anybody or anything else. So hell with you, [INAUDIBLE]. But-- OK. And so, no, I just let it go, and in fact I think that he has now put his own act together, which was taking him a while.
  • [02:06:35.23] It was an interesting story. [INAUDIBLE] tried to farm, and he was not a good farmer. And that was when I had to deal with my parents on that, and the whole family-- what are we going to do here? So I went out to Kansas, and I was talking to people that I had known earlier on that I had grown up with and so forth. And I walked into these people. I had been gone for 20 years, 25 years, they treated me as if I were still living and farming there. And so we were talking, and the key line came from one of the guys I talked to.
  • [02:07:07.74] Well, Ben, he says, that's his grandson. So OK. And so then-- I remember that, and still think of that, but with Andy and that comment. And as I've talked with my nephew since then, I think he has figured out he is now doing really what is appropriate. He is doing good work, and I think he sees his strengths and his limitations, and that's-- what more can you ask for? And I don't need a shotgun. What would I do with it? Would I hang it in the living room? On the mantelpiece, or what have you? But no. But no, in fact that-- I enjoy going to Kansas.
  • [02:07:49.19] My only mementos are people, and they are all dying. But that's OK too. In fact, a letter I wrote-- an email-- I talked to a friend last night who's a college friend, and he has had some health issues, and we got to talking about old age and so forth, his heart. And he was saying that he was concerned how his future was going to be. So I wrote him a letter, an email, I said, look-- Chuck, with what you have dealt with in your life already, health-wise and professionally, and so forth and so on, you have a full bag of tools. All you gotta do is just keep your tools intact, and use those, and your old age will be OK. So that's my goal-- is to make old age better for all of us. And making the end of life a good time-- why not? It's natural. Yeah.
  • [02:08:41.96] CREW: We have three more questions. We're just going to try to squeeze them in. Thinking back over your entire life, what are you most proud of?
  • [02:08:49.12] BEN HELMKE: Am I what?
  • [02:08:50.18] CREW: What are you most proud of?
  • [02:08:57.54] BEN HELMKE: Probably the agency. That was very good, and that was well known for its time. I enjoyed that, and I felt good about that. But now, I am most enjoying just the new challenges and things-- throw me the case that we don't have-- well, even Alzheimer's. Show me a case that we don't have an answer for, and I'll try and figure out how I'm going to cope with it.
  • [02:09:26.73] CREW: What would you say has changed most from the time you were my age to now?
  • [02:09:34.71] BEN HELMKE: I'm looking at your socks, and that would have been the kind of thing I would have worn in high school. Yeah. Well, I would-- high school for me was an exciting time because I had good friends. We were involved in music. We had a lot of music things going, connection with Interlaken up here, and so forth. So I think my kids' high school years, we had great parties in our house. And for-- I don't know that many of you in high school now.
  • [02:10:11.72] Well, my granddaughter, yeah, and she has just started college out in Vancouver. She's doing well. Yeah, and so we talk on email a little bit. In fact, I'm going to go to Norway before Christmas, and she's going to be back from Vancouver, and she'll be there for a couple weeks while I'm there. Calculus was not a big thing then.
  • [02:10:41.12] CREW: Lucky.
  • [02:10:42.48] BEN HELMKE: What?
  • [02:10:42.73] CREW: I said, lucky.
  • [02:10:45.53] BEN HELMKE: Yeah. I actually-- yeah. I might have enjoyed calculus. I don't know. I didn't enjoy m-- well, I enjoyed math, but I kept asking, why are we doing it that way? I kept asking all the why questions, and that wasn't done in that time. You did it according to the book. So I was-- I think my kids were far more-- well, they were more intellectually challenged. I was not. High school was boring for me. I didn't come alive really until I was in the Army, when I was in my early 20s, and that was-- that's when I started to come alive.
  • [02:11:23.12] CREW: And then what advice would you give to my generation?
  • [02:11:30.42] BEN HELMKE: Don't be afraid of challenges.
  • [02:11:34.40] CREW: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we haven't asked about.
  • [02:11:40.17] BEN HELMKE: Anybody have any questions?
  • [02:11:43.18] CREW: I'm sure I do. I just can't think.
  • [02:11:45.63] CREW: I think anything will be in the final interview that we ask.
  • [02:11:49.27] BEN HELMKE: Yeah.
  • [02:11:53.43] CREW: All right.
  • [02:11:54.92] BEN HELMKE: OK. Anything else?
  • [02:11:57.36] CREW: No. I think that's it. I think we're good.
  • [02:11:59.68] BEN HELMKE: OK. Well, thank you all.