The Deacon Blog

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

Retired Faculty

The father of Wake Forest ROTC

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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)

Farewell, Peggy Smith

Yesterday was a day for notable events. “You could be celebrating the start of the Civil War” or David Letterman’s birthday, Harold W. Tribble Professor of Art Margaret Supplee Smith told those of us who squeezed into 102-C of the Scales Fine Arts Center at 5:30 p.m.

Perhaps.

Those occasions have their followers, but yesterday we gathered at Scales to celebrate Dr. Smith, better known as Peggy Smith. We had come to hear what was dubbed her farewell lecture on what turned out to be her birthday (don’t ask her age; you wouldn’t believe it if I told you. She’s ageless). It also marked the anniversary of the lecture she gave 32 years ago for her job interview at Wake Forest.

Peggy Smith once thought her destiny was Williamsburg.

Am I ever glad she got the job! Peggy (I didn’t dare call her that then) was one of the finest teachers I had at Wake Forest, a true role model for me and a good number of my friends. I carried my pocket-size “American Architecture” guide from one of her classes for years and was inspired in part by her passion for art to collect paintings myself. I remember studying the slide of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, and wondering why my art history professors made such a big deal of a bizarre, unfinished monstrosity church by a wacky dreamer named Antoni Gaudi. Then, nine years after graduation, I found myself standing in front of the church in awe of the unfinished, magnificent masterpiece. It had not come to life in a slide box in Scales but in the words of professors such as Peggy and the late Bob Knott. I remembered my Wake Forest art history professors in gratitude on that day of awe in Barcelona. They had been right all along.

Peggy surely felt the admiration of students, colleagues and old friends at her lecture called “Architecture Matters: past, current and future research, including American ski resorts.” Architecture, she said, “is the one art form that everybody encounters in everyday life.” We who view it bring our sentiments to it. “Wake Forest is a good example. Ask students why did they come here,” she said. They usually say it’s because it looks like what they think a college campus looks like.

Her lecture was a personal journey. She showed “some buildings that have mattered to me.” With characteristic wry humor she said, “Don’t worry. It’s not year by year.” She began with a photo of Friends Select School in Philadelphia; a 5-year-old Peggy sits on what appears to be a jungle gym teeming with children. That was her school, and its location meant that in Peggy’s early life she was surrounded by great buildings: Philadelphia City Hall in its Second Empire-style splendor, Wanamaker’s Department Store designed by Daniel Burnham, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts designed by Frank Furness and George Hewitt. Every school day she rode with her mother from their home in New Jersey across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into central Philadelphia. “To a child … buildings fed my memories, gave me a sense of place and influenced my awareness of cultural values,” she said. All those buildings she encountered “influenced my sense of the public realm.”

She showed us the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, next door to the Episcopal boarding school she attended in New Jersey at ages six and seven. She would grow up to learn that the chapel was a significant example of Gothic Revival architecture. She allowed us to hop aboard in memory the six-week ride she took with her grandmother from the East Coast to California, “traveling exactly as the builders intended” — by train — to grand hotels like Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone to movie stars’ homes in Beverly Hills. A decidedly inspirational moment came in 1957 when she was on a family trip to Jamestown and Williamsburg, Va. She loved the scenes and decided she would grow up to become “a costumed guide” at Williamsburg.

Years later, in the 1970s, she would be featured in a Glamour magazine article as someone “with a Brown Ph.D” fresh in hand who had abandoned her dream of becoming a costumed guide for a new goal: to be on Williamsburg’s board of directors. Peggy’s thesis involved tracing the history of 3,500 row houses in Boston’s South End at a time American cities were trying to reclaim their sense of place. “I learned that architecture could tell stories and connect people with their history,” she said. She joined Wake Forest in 1979, teaching art and architectural history. She served four terms as department chair and helped establish the University’s Women’s Studies Program.

“I am just retiring from teaching,” Peggy told us. “I’m not dying.”

She has more research lined up and a book on the way about the history of American ski resorts. “But I have satisfaction,” she said, clicking the computer to show a slide replete with gravestones, “that only an architectural historian can — of knowing that my family burial place is in America’s second Picturesque Rural Cemetery,” designed by the same architect who designed the little Gothic Revival chapel, where as a first-grader she carried the crucifix up the aisle at Sunday Vespers.

The circle comes round. The first lecture and the last lecture, both delivered on an April day.

Enjoy retirement, Peggy. You will be missed in the classrooms of Scales but remembered by students everywhere who look up during their architectural encounters in everyday life and savor the delight of seeing a building that gives life meaning or sparks a memory. I’m one of those students. Peggy taught me.