Promoting the Legacy of ‘Senator No’
No compendium of influential conservatives from the 20th century is complete without “Senator No” — Jesse Helms.
First elected in 1972 to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Senate, Helms was a mainstay of the conservative movement over the following three decades. He aided President Ronald Reagan and others in battling communism abroad and favored free markets and traditional values at home.
Never far from controversy, Helms was heralded by the political right and demonized by the political left. Yet both sides agreed on one thing: Helms always was true to his principles.
2013 marks the 40th anniversary of Helms being sworn in as a U.S. senator. Even four decades later, his impact continues to be felt. Furthering that impact, and preserving his legacy, is the mission of the Jesse Helms Center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2013.
Headquartered just outside Charlotte, North Carolina, the Jesse Helms Center’s purpose is to promote traditional American values and the principles upon which our nation was founded. This is accomplished through education, public policy promotion, and historical preservation, with a special emphasis on reaching young people.
That youth-centric mission is meant to honor the legacy, and the memory, of Sen. Helms, who passed away on July 4, 2008.
“Sen. Helms always had a big focus on young people,” said John Dodd, President of the Jesse Helms Center. “During his career, he met with over 100,000 young people from North Carolina.”
For Dodd, reaching those in the Millennial generation has been one of his primary focuses.
“Those of us who believe in conservative values and our founding virtues haven’t done enough to promote those beliefs to future generations,” he said. “That’s why Sen. Helms gave us that direction when the Center was created in 1994.”
To help the Jesse Helms Center accomplish its good work, the John William Pope Foundation has given $775,000 since the late 1990s. Unlike many other senatorial libraries across the country, the Center takes no government subsidies.
Promoting the legacy
Even though the Jesse Helms Center is far more than just a repository of the late senator’s papers, its archive remains one of its central and most important aspects.
The papers cover Helms’ 30-year U.S. Senate career. In addition, the archive includes documents from his time as Executive Vice President of WRAL News and his tenure on the Raleigh City Council.
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“The priceless documents provide researchers with a clear and accurate record of events that helped shape the latter part of the 20th century,” Dodd said.
The documents are housed in a 23,000 square foot building opened in 2001. Over 1 million documents are in the archives, and staff continue the long process of getting all of them processed.
The FELC Experience
In keeping with its mission to reach young people, a cornerstone program of the Jesse Helms Center is the Free Enterprise Leadership Challenge. FELC is designed to help young people think entrepreneurially, act morally, and better understand our nation’s founding principles.
Established in 1995, FELC is a 5-day summer camp that gives rising high-school sophomores, juniors, and seniors a great opportunity to get hands-on experience in entrepreneurship, business, and leadership. The program, held at local colleges and universities, now counts almost 7,000 young people as graduates.
“Instead of a traditional classroom atmosphere, we actually allow them to become entrepreneurs themselves,” said Brian Rogers, the Helm Center’s chief operating officer. “It’s experiential — they learn by doing.”
Xavier Massey was one of the students who benefited from the program. He credits FELC with instilling within him an aspiration to go to college one day — and perhaps pursue a career in free enterprise.
“The conference challenged me to want more for myself,” he said.
During 2013, FELC was expanded to include five new summer sessions across the state and nation.
“By the end of the week, students don’t want to leave. These kids have worked hard and accomplished something,” Rogers said.
The Center’s public policy track focuses on two of Sen. Helms’ top goals in the U.S. Senate — strengthening free enterprise at home and U.S. foreign policy abroad.
During his career in the Senate, Helms championed the idea of a balanced budget amendment and a flat tax. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he fought to protect U.S. national sovereignty, promote freedom around the world, and hold the United Nations accountable to U.S. taxpayers.
Toward that end, the Center funds a free-enterprise fellow at Wingate University — Dr. Peter Frank, now in his third year as a Helms Center fellow. As a contributing author to a number of major publications across the nation, Dr. Frank defends the idea of American exceptionalism as a free-market beacon in the world.
One of the ways Dr. Frank communicates is through the BB&T Program on the Moral Foundations of Free Enterprise at Wingate University.
On the foreign policy front, the Center sponsors a foreign policy lecture series in conjunction with the Heritage Foundation. The lecture kicked off in 2010 featuring former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and features U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz this fall.
An enduring legacy
For the future, Dodd said that he and the Center staff want to continue to honor the legacy of the late senator.
“We want to continue to do our part to promote the values that Sen. Helms stood for throughout his career, any way we can,” he said.
Perhaps no better summary of the Center’s mission can be found than in the words of Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Great Britain and a close ally of Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan.
“The Jesse Helms Center will fascinate and inform many future generations,” she said during the commencement of the Center’s new library building in 2001. “Above all, it will serve to remind them of the unswerving values that Senator Helms has embodied during his distinguished life of service.”
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