Gene Oliver Helgeson passed away Jan. 14, 2021.
He was welcomed into the world on April 17, 1929, by a loving family: mother Tillie, father Miner, brothers Milton and Curtis, sister Elma, and cousin Lawrence. Tillie and Miner were first generation Norwegian Americans who spoke Norwegian and English in their home at Burnham Creek Farm near Crookston, Minnesota. Tillie’s family had been leaders in the Norwegian Lutheran Synod, founding Pacific Lutheran University, and Miner’s father was a devout Lutheran who had traveled the world in the Norwegian merchant marines before emigrating to American and homesteading in Fisher, Minnesota. The Helgeson family that Gene was born into had a busy farm life, operating the area’s first scientifically run farm, raising Poland China hogs and Shorthorn cattle, but Gene’s father Miner still found time to contribute to his community, serving the school board, as township supervisor, and county commissioner. He was elected to the Minnesota State Legislature in 1928 and was serving in the House of Representatives when Gene was born, and until Gene was 7 years old, the family would split their time between their farm and St. Paul. After Miner’s elected service ended in 1936, the Helgesons moved from their farm to Crookston, where Miner worked with the State Department of Agriculture. With his parents as examples, Gene grew up in a home that valued family and service to God, country, and community, and this laid the foundation for the amazing man Gene was to become.
As a young child, Gene enjoyed the adventures of farm life. He told stories of playing in the hay lofts, making rafts and floating down river, and defending his older, but shorter, brother Curt against bullies. As a teen living in town, he was involved in everything from the Crookston High School cheer squad—”Lutefisk and Lefse, Copenhagen snuff, when you yell for the Pirates, you can’t yell enough!”—to the football team. He held roles in the junior play and ran “sucker” for the track team. But he was probably best known as one of the two “Giants” who were posts on the Pirate basketball team.
After graduating from high school in 1947, Gene worked as a passenger representative on Amtrak’s Empire Builder train from Chicago to Seattle. Then in 1949 he was awarded a basketball scholarship to St. Cloud State University. But his education was cut short when he joined the Army the following year, beginning his service in “Cook and Baker School.” This time in his life would become the source of many stories of military pranks—rocks hiding in rolls, salt instead of sugar in lemon meringue pies—with which Gene would delight friends and family over the years.
During his service, Gene met fellow soldier Florence Joan Moreau, and they wed in 1955. They were stationed in Baumholder, Germany where Gene’s first child Gregg was born in 1957, followed by James in 1960 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. After a one year tour in Korea, Sergeant First Class Helgeson was assigned as the active duty advisor to the North Carolina Army Guard Armory in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and in the Spring of 1966, First Sergeant Helgeson was given orders for the first of his two tours of service in Vietnam. On Dec. 16, 1966, as a member of Company D, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (airmobile), Gene found himself in one of the Vietnam War’s most tragic early battles at the 506 Valley near Bong Son, Vietnam. He was awarded the Silver Star for “repeated gallant actions under intense enemy fire” after he “raced across 50 meters of open, fire-swept terrain,” ultimately pulling wounded men to safety and leading a medical shock team to wounded soldiers. “First Sergeant Helgeson received word that still another wounded man was lying forward of the perimeter. With complete disregard for his own safety, and fully aware that the enemy controlled the area outside the perimeter, First Sergeant Helgeson volunteered to lead the medical shock team forward to search for the wounded soldier.” An Army report written at the time concluded, “Helgeson’s team crept around, looking for American wounded, treating them and pulling them back for evacuation. There can be no doubt that Helgeson and crew put life back into men who otherwise would have surely died from their wounds.” Unbelievably, the Huey helicopter that arrived at the landing zone to evacuate Gene to safety was piloted by Denny Engen, his buddy and best friend from Crookston, Minnesota.
After safely returning home in June 1967, Joan and Gene divorced and Gene was assigned closer to home as a ROTC instructor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. There he met the love of his life, Wanda Lee Johnson, who had also grown up in Crookston. Gene and Wanda wed on Sept. 16, 1970, just before he was ordered to return to Vietnam for his second tour of service, this time with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Gene also earned a Bronze Star for his Vietnam Service and safely returned home in summer 1971, meeting his baby daughter Kristi for the first time and becoming the adoptive father of Wanda’s children Scott, Kimberly, and Julie.
Gene was then assigned with the 173rd to Fort Campbell Kentucky, followed by a ROTC assignment at Austin Peay State University, where he raised his new family until retiring from the Army. After reuniting with his sons Gregg and James, and moving his newly blended family to Cheney, Washington in 1975, Gene completed his undergraduate degree at Eastern Washington University. Gene’s retirement from the Army began what would become a series of varied and interesting professional pursuits: teaching high school shop and driver’s ed, coaching basketball, directing Spokane Transit Authority’s Special Transportation division, starting up the area’s first computer-generated commercial signage business, and selling Oxyfresh personal hygiene products. Between these ventures and raising his family of six children, Gene contributed to his community, assuming significant lay leadership responsibilities in St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, including roles as parish council president, bingo caller, and Mardi Gras chair, and he did it all with an uncommon zest for life, sense of humor, and warmth, respect, and friendly demeanor toward all.
During this time in Cheney, Gene enjoyed growing tomatoes, bowling, and playing outdoors with family and friends: camping, huckleberry picking, barbecuing, golfing, and boating. He taught anyone who wanted to learn how to waterski, was a slalom skier himself, and once he even skied while holding the rope in his teeth. He was home for family dinners each evening, when everyone would squeeze in around the corner booth in the kitchen. And he put his college shop skills to work for his large family, converting the garage to a bedroom with a half bath for the teen boys to share, dividing the family room into rooms for the teen girls, and building pantry shelves in the laundry room.
Once their nest was empty in 1989, Gene and Wanda sold their home, bought a motor home, and traveled to Alaska to work the salmon season. They ended up traveling for three years, going as far south as Mazatlán, Mexico, where Gene relived his paratrooper days with the thrill of parasailing in the Pacific Ocean. They eventually returned to the Spokane area, where he and Wanda owned and operated Brewbakers Espresso Cafe, originally started by their daughter Julie before there was a Starbucks on every corner. Gene would rise before the sun each morning to make pumpkin and banana bread, while Wanda was the smiling barista. At this time Gene also operated his espresso machine sale and repair business Espresso Fix, and he and Wanda found time between business responsibilities for bowling leagues, weekly golfing, volunteering at the church, traveling in their RVs, and “space-available” travel abroad to exotic destinations including Spain, Morocco, and Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Eventually, Gene and Wanda began traveling south each winter, and they decided on the Tucson, Arizona area as their snowbird destination of choice, purchasing their home in San Manuel in 2002. By 2006 they had sold their Spokane-area home and lived in San Manuel year-round, which allowed them to become more connected to the community. Gene could often be found at the barbecue grilling kebabs for guests, on the golf course with his golfing buddies, or playing cards at home with friends. Gene and Wanda bowled in the Tucson Funtimer league for over 10 years. Gene and Wanda were also faithful parishioners at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, where Gene was parish council president and Knights of Columbus Grand Knight, worked the annual church Fiesta, and sang in the choir at Mass, accompanied by Wanda on the piano.
Woven among the tapestry of Gene’s life are the small moments and memories he’s left in the hearts of all who knew him. Although his Army rank was Command Sergeant Major, he was known as a fun loving, compassionate, and gentle person who led by example. A former employee once wrote to Gene commending his “perfect balance of compassion and respect for [his] employees,” and “dedication to [his] wife and family.” Gene gave warm, strong hugs and juicy kisses to just about everyone he met. And he would come to the aid of someone in need without hesitation. One snowy New Year’s Eve he was driving to a holiday concert when an older man on the sidewalk fell down in the snow. Gene pulled over, helped the man—who had been drinking and was far from home without proper clothing—squeezed him into the fifth seat of the sedan, drove him home, and escorted him to his door before continuing on to the concert. Indeed, Gene saved many lives with his small and large acts of kindness, love, and selfless generosity.
Having spent over 26 years in the Army, military precision in his daily schedule became the norm and a source of comfort for Gene throughout his life. Being on time for events and travel, along with a clean-shaven face, were paramount. As was his daily morning ritual of eating a banana. Recently, the only banana in the house was very, very ripe. Gene told Wanda, “Well, I’ll just pretend it’s banana pudding.” That’s who Gene was. He would make light of a dark situation. He would think creatively and solve problems. He would make you smile and laugh.
Gene also loved telling stories and playing practical jokes, and at times he would laugh so heartily that he’d fall out of his chair with a charley horse. He equally loved listening to others, and he cared deeply for his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, took interest and actively participated in their lives, and was a patient and kind teacher and cheerleader: he spent hours shooting free throws in the driveway with his daughter, attending his grandson’s golf tournaments, or making Veteran’s Day presentations in his dress blues at his great grandson’s school.
Gene knew how to deliver moving and humorous toasts, and he loved dancing with Wanda; at reunions, weddings, fiestas, anywhere with music and a dance floor, Gene and Wanda would be the center of attention with the beautiful dancing of two dancers who were deeply in love. Gene never went to bed at night without giving hugs and kisses and telling you he loved you. Gene passed away peacefully on Jan. 14, 2021.
Gene Helgeson was an exceptional man, husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, uncle, friend, mentor, employer, teacher, public servant, patriot, and man of God. He will live forever within the hearts and minds of all those who he touched. He is deeply loved, missed, and survived by his wife of over 50 years Wanda (Johnson) Helgeson; his sons Gregg (Cathy) Helgeson, James Helgeson, and Scott (Denise) Helgeson, his daughters Kimberly (Paul) McMacken, Julie (Randy) Kembel, and Kristi (Michael Chalcraft) Helgeson; his grandchildren Brandy (Matt) Sorensen, Josh (Shelly) Swanson, Bryan (Nina) Helgeson, Nicole Shaw, Jennifer (Kevin) Worden, Hollie Helgeson, Corbin (Jaime) Kembel, Kramer (Kaitlen) Kembel, Dylan Chalcraft, and Elliott Chalcraft; his great grandchildren Parker and Teagan Sorensen, Molly and Lincoln Swanson, Laihr and Koen Worden, Brooklyn Shaw, Vincent and Nico Helgeson, Reed and Blake Kembel, and Kollins Kembel; as well as many nieces and nephews, grand nieces and nephews, and cousins. Gene is preceded in death by his father Miner Albert Helgeson, his mother “Tillie” Torbjor Tobina (Harstad) Helgeson, his brothers Milton (Dorothy) Helgeson and Curtis (Marlys) Helgeson, and his sister Elma (Clarence) Myrold.
A Funeral Mass for Gene Helgeson will be held at 1 p.m. on May 21, 2021 at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in San Manuel, Arizona. A rosary service and graveside burial with full military honors in Crookston, Minnesota will be announced at a later date.
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