Rob Christensen

Christensen: Jesse and Dot Helms, a newsroom romance

Jesse and Dot Helms met at The N&O.
Jesse and Dot Helms met at The N&O. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

There have been many newsroom romances at The News & Observer, but the one between Jesse Helms and Dot Coble would be remembered because of the people involved.

Helms, the son of the Monroe police chief, had started his college career at Wingate College, his hometown school, before transferring to Wake Forest College during the 1939-40 academic year, when it was still located in the town just north of Raleigh.

Helms lived in a boarding house where he washed dishes in exchange for room and board. He got a part-time job working as an overnight proofreader for 50 cents an hour at The N&O. Every night, Helms rode 18 miles by train to Raleigh and then returned in time for an 8 a.m. class, according to William Link’s biography of Helms, “Righteous Warrior.”

Helms also did publicity for the sports department, paid $18.75 per month, as part of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal liberal program suggested by Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the newsroom

At the N&O he met Dorothy Coble, the daughter of Jacob L. Coble, a traveling shoe salesman from Raleigh. Fresh out of the journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she was already editing what was then called the society pages for the paper.

“She was very pretty,” Helms recalled.

“The best path to my desk in the sports department was past Dot, and I made it my business to travel that path often,” Helms wrote in his autobiography, “Here’s Where I Stand.” “There was a little shop near the newspaper office, where you could get a coca cola and a small pack of peanuts for a dime. It seemed to me that Dorothy might enjoy some peanuts and a soda. I cultivated the habit of leaving a cola and peanuts on her desk whenever I went out for myself. That was the smartest habit I ever created.”

Their first date was really a news assignment. Dot had been assigned to cover a dance at N.C. State University featuring crooner Frank Sinatra. Another reporter had been assigned as her escort, but Dot decided to ask Helms along as a chaperone to protect her from unwanted advances.

From then on, a friendship bloomed. Both often worked late Friday night putting the paper to bed. Helms would frequently persuade her to take a break from work for a steak dinner at the Hollywood Café located a block from the newspaper, where Helms would recall decades later that he could buy a steak, a baked potato, a salad and toasted biscuits for 65 cents.

Helms moved over to The Raleigh Times, an afternoon newspaper, where he was both a reporter and assistant city editor covering the police department, local crime, city hall and accidents.

World War II accelerated their courtship and the two were married in 1942 and honeymooned in New York City, where they took in the sights and shows featuring Sinatra and Benny Goodman.

Nonpolitical period

Helms was married in his Navy uniform. He had been rejected by the Navy for his bad eyesight, but was able to get a job as a Navy recruiter. Helms was stationed mainly in Wilmington, Ahoskie, and Columbus and Macon, Georgia, with Dot trailing along.

Helms is often described as nonpolitical during that period. Dot was a conservative Democrat, and her father was ardently anti-Roosevelt and anti-New Deal.

After the war, Helms returned to work for The Raleigh Times as city editor, but soon began a career in radio, and later entered politics as an aide to Sen. Willis Smith and as director of the State Bankers Association.

His big break came when A.J. Fletcher, a Raleigh lawyer and the owner of WRAL-TV, hired him to be one of the nation’s first TV editorialists in 1960.

Fletcher wanted Helms to be a conservative counterweight to The N&O and The Raleigh Times, which he said has “been so far to the left that they barely escape being behind the Iron or Bamboo curtains.”

So Helms throughout the ’60s would become a leading critic of his old newspaper, and after he won election to the U.S. Senate in 1972, his old newspaper’s opinion page would find little to like about Helms. While Helms would become a leading conservative voice, Dot was content to largely be a mother, spouse and volunteer.

Helms died in 2008. Dot Helms passed away this month. Like the Hollywood Café, Sinatra concerts, and train commutes between Raleigh and Wake Forest – the passing of an era.