The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community


The father of Wake Forest ROTC


If you graduated from Wake Forest between 1940 and 2000, you probably knew, or at least knew of, Robert Helm (’39). Odds are good that you, or a friend, had Helm for “Meaning and Value,” “Space and Time” or some other equally challenging philosophy course. It was what I didn’t know about the retired philosophy professor that left me surprised and impressed Homecoming weekend.

If you were at the Wake Forest-Army game Saturday, it had to warm your heart to see Helm – 97 years old and looking spiffy in a bow tie and Wake Forest #1 jersey – hitch a ride with the Demon Deacon to “open the gate” at BB&T Field.

Helm’s service to Wake Forest is unparalleled. He joined the faculty shortly after graduating, left for a few years to serve in World War II and then rejoined the faculty to teach until 2002. He was named to a distinguished professorship in 1983 when he was appointed Worrell Professor of Philosophy.

But he was honored, appropriately, at the Army game for what I suspect many at BB&T Field didn’t know about him until they heard the P.A. announcer describe his service to his country and school. Lieutenant Colonel Helm served in World War II in France, Luxemburg and Germany. He was with the 89th Infantry Division in General George Patton’s Third Army as it fought its way across Europe.

When he returned to Wake Forest in 1947, he persuaded then-President Harold W. Tribble to pursue an ROTC program on campus. According to Bynum Shaw’s “History of Wake Forest College,” about 300 colleges and universities submitted applications to the Department of Defense to start ROTC programs on their campuses; 32 were selected, including Wake Forest. The Wake Forest ROTC unit had offices and classrooms in the basement of Binkley Chapel on the Old Campus; drills were held on the athletic playing fields. Helm served for years as faculty coordinator and chairman of the ROTC committee while continuing to serve in the Army Reserve.

Honoring Robert Helm at BB&T Field were (left to right) Charles  McCartney,  John Yingling ('74), Robert Caslen and Richard Beale.

Honoring Robert Helm at BB&T Field were (left to right) Charles McCartney, John Yingling, Robert Caslen and Richard Beale.

Since 1951, nearly 2,000 Wake Forest graduates have been commissioned as Army second lieutenants. If you’ve ever been to Commencement, you know that the commissioning ceremony is one of the highlights of the day.

An impressive trio of officers who got their start through the Wake Forest ROTC program was on hand to honor Helm at BB&T Field. Major General (Ret.) Richard Beale (’64), Major General (Ret.) Charles McCartney (’69) and Major General (Ret.) John Yingling (’74). They are the only Wake Forest Army ROTC graduates to be promoted to the rank of Major General. They were joined by Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, superintendent of the United States Military Academy.

The day before, Helm was recognized at the Half Century Club luncheon — for alumni who graduated 50 years ago or more — for the 75th anniversary of his graduation from Wake Forest. Beale, who was there, too, to celebrate his 50th reunion, was eager to talk with me about Helm, calling him “the father of the Wake Forest ROTC.”

20140920homecoming0820“He’s a patriot. He was part of that generation that Tom Brokaw refers to as ‘the greatest generation.’ He understood the importance of serving your country when the time came,” said Beale, who retired in 1996.

“What he realized by serving in World War II … he understood the importance of having people enter the Army and the commissioned officer corps who had a liberal arts education from a fine college or university to blend with the engineering background of the officers that came in from West Point. He had a vision when he got back to campus, and he approached Dr. Tribble about the merits of bringing ROTC to the campus.”

And that’s why Robert Helm was chosen to open the gate.

— Kerry M. King (’85)

The hitchhiker’s 76th reunion

Fred Williams Sr. ('38, JD '40) with his son, Fred ('67, JD '69), and daughter-in-law, Susan ('67).

Fred Williams Sr. (’38, JD ’40) with his son, Fred (’67, JD ’69), and daughter-in-law Susan (’67).

I doubt there’s any alumnus who can top Fred Williams Sr.’s story on how he came to Wake Forest.

Williams (’38, JD ’40) celebrated his 76th reunion at Homecoming this year. Let that sink in for a moment: it’s been 76 years since he graduated from Wake Forest College. And he’s a spry 99 years old.

It was 81 years ago this month that Williams arrived on the Old Campus. It was a long road from his boyhood home in Trion, Georgia: 510 miles, he tells me on a sunny afternoon Homecoming weekend. It’s a good eight-hour car ride today. Back in his day, it took him two full days: He hitchhiked. The entire way.

Williams’ cousin, Jake Howell (’32), had convinced him that Wake Forest was the place he should go to college. He didn’t waste any time applying. On a Saturday morning in early September 1933, he headed out to Highway 27 and stuck out his thumb.

“My dad spent $12 for a steamer trunk, and I put everything that I had in there and shipped it Railroad Express to Wake Forest, North Carolina. I had never been there, didn’t know anything about it” other than what his cousin had told him, Williams said.

Two days later, he was standing in front of Hardwick’s Drug Store on White Street in the town of Wake Forest with $70 in his pocket. He found a place to live on the second floor of Wilkerson’s grocery store ($32.50 for the semester) and headed over to campus for orientation.

Everything was going smoothly until registrar Grady Patterson (’24) asked him for his bursar’s card, Williams recalled. “I had never heard of one. I said ‘where do you get one?’ He said, ‘Across the hall.’”

That led him to the office of bursar E.B. Earnshaw (1906, MA 1908), who explained that tuition was $100 and fees were $37.50. Williams remembers their conversation like it was yesterday. “He said, ‘I can let you sign a note for tuition, but you’ll have to pay your student fees.’ I said ‘I don’t have any money.’ And he said, ‘You can’t pay your student fees?’ And I said ‘I don’t have any money.’ It seemed like it was 15 minutes, but it was probably only a minute or two, and he said, ‘You know, I’m going to let you register.’”


Earnshaw’s faith in the young hitchhiker from Georgia was well-placed. Williams went on to graduate from law school and have a highly successful career as a lawyer and commercial real estate developer in Greensboro, North Carolina. And he’s given back to the school that gave him a chance so long ago, endowing a scholarship and a distinguished faculty chair in the law school.

But Williams admits that he made a mistake naming the scholarship: “Instead of the Fred Williams Scholarship, it should be the E.B. Earnshaw Scholarship,” he says. “Wake Forest made my life.”

— Kerry M. King (’85)

Imagining tomorrow’s world circa 1957

In University Advancement we’re packing boxes in Reynolda Hall for our move to a building behind the law school later this month. That means most of us are sorting files, recycling papers and happening upon treasures like this June 1957 edition of “the Wake Forest Magazine” that I found in a glass case in the hallway.

Kitty Booth ('57) of Morganton jumped for joy after exams.

This bit of history includes the 1957 speech by Alumni Association President John R. Knott (’23) at the senior class breakfast on Commencement Day in which he proclaimed that seniors would be taking their place in “a fascinating yet impersonal world — a world, if you please, that invites you, that will challenge you, a world that desperately needs you.”

Knott wondered, “What will your world of tomorrow be like?”

I’ve compiled highlights from his list of prognostications:

• Every year a population equal to Maryland’s will be added to the country.

• By 1987, half the working population will be working on goods and services that today are unknown.

• Your world “will gradually emerge as a clean world, for the soot and smoke will disappear as atomic energy takes over the job now being done by coal and oil.”

• Space “will yield all of her secrets to those of you who dare to fly into the unknown.”

• Cancer will be “completely conquered. You are to witness and play a part in this achievement.”

• The human heart will be “trained to beat longer in the human body. You will help bring this about.”

• Slums will disappear, thanks to your being “the magicians” who will provide “the touch” to change the appearance of American cities.

“Your world of tomorrow will pay a premium on integrity and character,” Knott said, adding a quote from Peter Drucker: “What will be decisive above all, in the future even more than in the past, is neither education nor skill; it is integrity of character.”

In the world of tomorrow, Knott said, “sons” of Wake Forest College will be meeting each other at the corner drugstore, on the church steps, over an operating table, in a business deal and on a golf course. “They will be engaged in endeavors similar to yours — that of making the world a better and happier place in which to live … (W)henever they meet, wherever they meet, there’s a lift to the spirit, there’s a quickening of the pulse, there’s a light in the eyes, for Wake Forest men are together!”

He failed to mention the obvious fact (see 1957 magazine cover) that there were at least a few women around. The magazine noted that the West Dormitory for women would be named to honor Miss Lois Johnson, “the first and current dean of women.” Indeed, 1957 was a time of firsts, including the first Commencement for Wake Forest on the new campus.

As I observe how the Quad is being readied for Commencement all these years later, and as I prepare to say goodbye to seniors I have come to know, teach and admire, it all makes me wonder: Seniors, what will your world of tomorrow be like?

I hope there’s a lift to your spirit and light in your eyes when you meet fellow Wake Foresters (“sons” and “daughters” of WFU) in a business deal, on the church steps, at the corner drugstore and beyond, from Paris to Beijing, to the hamlets of Indonesia and to the villages of Ethiopia. I hope you change the world for the better because the world desperately needs you. (See Knott’s list of unfinished business.) Above all, may you be as happy all the days of your life as Kitty Booth, who on a spring day in 1957 leapt for joy at Wake Forest.