Harold M. Helfman, 86, teacher, information director for Air Force

July 11, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Dr. Harold M. Helfman, who wrote speeches for high-ranking military officers as well as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, died July 1 of pneumonia caused by kidney disease at Genesis-Randallstown nursing home. The longtime Baltimore resident was 86.

Born in Detroit, Dr. Helfman earned a bachelor's degree in history and education 1938 from what is now Wayne State University. He then attended the University of Michigan, where he received a master's degree in American history in 1939 and a doctorate in American social and constitutional history in 1947.

During World War II, he served in the Army and had attained the rank of staff sergeant when he was discharged in 1946.

He married Betty Grant of Oil City, Pa., in 1944.

"They had a truly incredible relationship," said their daughter, Sue Surell of Baltimore.

The couple moved to Baltimore in 1952 when Dr. Helfman accepted a job as deputy director of information with the Air Force Systems Command, a civilian position he held for nearly 30 years.

"He wrote for all the joint chiefs of staff, the secretary of the Air Force and various commanders," said his son James Helfman of Baltimore. "If there was a [similar position in the military], it would've been held by a colonel."

When Dr. Helfman assumed his post with the Air Force, the military was expanding its space program, his son said. He was responsible for informing the news media and the public about the program's efforts, including NASA's manned Mercury flights from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

He worked alongside Gen. Bernard Schriever, who was regarded as the father of the military space program. General Schriever died last month at home in Washington at age 94.

When NASA's Apollo 11 blasted off with the first astronauts who would walk on the moon, Dr. Helfman was responsible for keeping the press up to date.

"If something had gone wrong, it would've been up to him to tell everyone," his son said.

James Helfman said his father would later recount the discussions that occurred behind the scenes to determine which astronaut, Neil Armstrong or Edwin Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin Jr., would step onto the moon's surface first.

"Once the decision was made, he was allowed to release it to the public," said Mrs. Surell. "Nothing was released to the press without his approval."

In 1967, Dr. Helfman was awarded the Air Force's highest civilian honor, the Decoration for Civilian Service, for "exceptionally outstanding accomplishments of major significance to the Air Force."

He began teaching history in the mid-1940s at Ohio State University and at the University of Michigan. After retiring from his Air Force duties, he taught on a volunteer basis at Goucher College in Towson and was a guest lecturer at the University of Baltimore's school of business, industry and management.

He also wrote many articles and book reviews on American history, social developments, education and public affairs for publications such as the Air Force Review.

His son and daughter said he was a humble man and never referred to himself as a "doctor" outside of work.

He was active in the Jewish community, having been a member of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville since at least the early 1980s. Among other leadership roles, he served on the synagogue's board of trustees.

He was on the executive board of the Baltimore Jewish Council from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. He also was active with the Baltimore Federation of Senior Congregational Social Clubs, the Suburban Orthodox Congregation, the Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland.

Services were held July 3.

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Dr. Helfman is survived by another son, Richard Helfman of Metuchen, N.J.; and eight grandchildren.

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