Publication Date

March 1, 2004

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Thomas Tolman Helde, professor of history emeritus at Georgetown University, died on December 7, 2003, in Falls Church, Virginia. The cause of death was cancer, with which he had been diagnosed in 2002. Born on June 13, 1920, at Beiluding, in the Sichuan province of China, Thomas Helde was the son of YMCA missionaries. Because his mother died soon after his birth, he was cared for by grandparents in Minnesota until his father remarried. He returned to China at the age of four. He attended Kuling American School in China, graduated from secondary school in New Haven, Connecticut, and in 1941 received a bachelor's degree in history from Yale University. Having specialized in German history, he worked as an analyst in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and subsequently served a year in the Army at Camp A.P. Hill in Virginia.

After the war Helde began graduate studies at Yale, earning a master's degree and then a PhD in history in 1949. While in graduate school, he became a member of the American Historical Association, to which he belonged for his remaining 56 years. In 1948 he joined the faculty of the Carnegie Institute of Technology where he taught until 1957, except for a year of research in 1954–55 at Bonn, Germany, under a Fulbright grant. He taught at Cornell University during the academic year 1957–58 and the next year joined the history department at Georgetown University.

Thomas Helde soon became a pillar of that department. Serving as chairman for two terms from 1967 to 1973 and for a third term from 1985 to 1988, he helped, in spite of his own European specialty, to transform Georgetown's primarily Western centered history program into one that was ranked amongst America's most regionally diverse and respected. As a leader, he was deeply appreciated for his ability to work diplomatically but effectively with colleagues in order to bring about timely solutions to even the most complex problems. He also served on many boards and committees dealing with issues in Georgetown's College of Arts and Sciences, its School of Foreign Service, and with university-wide issues. During the last decade of his career, he helped to plan Georgetown's interdisciplinary Center for German and European Studies, to which he moved in 1989 in order to serve as Director of Special Programs. He retired in 1997.

In the middle 1960s, Helde directed highly successful summer NDEA programs for secondary school teachers aimed at equipping them to teach world history more broadly and with greater focus upon non-Western regions than most had been trained to do. He was active in the Association for the Bibliography of History and contributed to the International Bibliography of Historical Sciences. In addition to his membership in the AHA, for which he was recognized as a 50-year member in 1997, Thomas Helde was also a member of the Conference Group for General European History and the Southern Historical Association. He also served as president of the Georgetown Chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

While his outstanding leadership ability and his important institutional contributions were deeply appreciated, Thomas Helde concentrated most determinedly on his role as teacher. He taught undergraduate courses in modern European history and a seminar in German history. Through his classical course in historiography, he introduced two generations of history majors and graduate students to the art and science of history as well as to its demands. He was probably best remembered, however, for his two-semester course in European diplomatic history which could attract between 70 and 80 students and which he taught during almost every year of his tenure at Georgetown. Students were constantly impressed by the precision, insight, and depth of the comments Helde made on the work they submitted to him. “After filling out every blank space on my paper,” one student said, “he would often have to add whole sheets of his own to include all his comments and suggestions.”

Thomas T. Helde's survivors include his wife of 53 years, Joan P. Helde, of Alexandria, Virginia; two sons, Thomas T. Helde Jr. of Rockville, Maryland and John P. Helde of Seattle, Washington; a half brother, W.H. Timmons of El Paso, Texas; and two grandchildren.

John Ruedy
Georgetown University

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