I have a confession. I have spent most of my life trying to be funny. I probably fail more than I succeed, but I am constantly pitching one-liners that I secretly hope will be quoted at my funeral. Imagine my dismay, then, when I never see anyone writing them down.
For instance, there was the time I was walking down the hallway in high school and saw a guy who was wearing half a globe as a hat. I couldn’t resist, so I went up to him and said, “Hey, it must be hard to get ahead in the world.”
Nothing. He just stared blankly at me, with the top half of Asia cocked over one eye. That guy will not show up at my funeral. So, I am reduced to the shameless indignity of quoting my own jokes for fear they will be lost.
Fortunately, that won’t happen to Bob Helsten. The much beloved Bible professor died in Ohio Nov. 9 at the age of 94. When I asked his neighbors, colleagues and former students to share stories, there was a steady supply.
He was a short man, and someone once asked how much he weighed. “Stripped down naked,” he said, “I weigh 145 pounds. But you can’t trust those scales in the drugstore.”
Bob had a running battle of wits with the late Dr. Jack Ryan. One day Jack was strolling with his daughter in Harding Park. He passed by Bob’s house and saw him cleaning his vehicle, with all four doors open. Jack shouted, “Are you airing your car?” Bob glanced up: “Yes, are you carting your heir?” Whenever they parted, Jack would say, “Have a nice day.” To which Bob replied, “Don’t tell me what to do.”
Bob was born in Seattle and grew up in Berkeley, California. One of his favorite lines went like this: “When I came to Harding in 1943, little did I know then . . .” He would pause, and then add, “That’s pretty much it.” As a student, he soon developed a reputation as a wit who could crack up his friends in chapel. Those were the days when Dr. Benson would call him into the office to reprimand his exuberance. Little did Benson know he was talking to future Bible faculty.
Bob met his wife Mary at Harding, and in 1947 they moved to Germany, where they did mission work for six years. When he returned to Harding in the late ’50s, he taught classes in German, Bible and the history of Christian thought.
He found humor everywhere: “Now, we all know that Abraham was a nomad. That doesn’t mean he didn’t get angry.” While writing on the blackboard, he’d turn around and ask, “If our knees bent the other way, what would chairs look like?” Then back to the board he’d turn. “He would give a wry smile,” one student recalled, “and get a mischievous look in his eyes when he was about to deliver a joke.”
While teaching German, he’d ask: “What is the number one language in the world? It’s Chinese. One out of six people speak Chinese.” Then he would count off six students in the front row and ask the sixth person, “Could you please say something in Chinese for me?”
In the late ’60s, the Cold War was raging, and Dr. Ganus gave frequent lectures on the virtues of capitalism at the local Civitan Club — lectures that were widely attended by students. On a few occasions, Bob played a prearranged role. Near the end, he would emerge from the crowd and pretend to be a communist sympathizer, challenging Dr. Ganus, who debated with him on the spot. Helsten was so convincing in the part that students would often yell, heckle and drown him out with patriotic singing.
But in every other setting, he was a man of gentle kindness. He loved animals and always saved his steak bones for the neighborhood dogs. He loved his family and went to his mother-in-law’s house every day when she was struggling with dementia. He typed out daily instructions (“Today is Tuesday . . . take your pills . . . doctor’s appointment at 3 . . .”). He even loved strangers. His daughter told me that Bob often dropped by the local nursing home to give a big hug to the most ill-tempered, least-liked woman there. “You’re the only one who understands me,” she would tell him.
He was a creative preacher. Once during a sermon, he illustrated the story of David and Goliath by taking out a sling. He put a rock into it while narrating the story and began to swing it in circles over his head. “Then David let it go at Golitath like this,” he said, and the entire congregation hit the floor. They hadn’t seen him take the rock out of the sling.
He tried to keep up with popular culture. He was no matinee idol, but he nicknamed himself “Carlton Helsten.” Or, when he overheard students talking about “Saturday Night Live,” he would say, “Yeah, they have some funny skits. But some of them are rather risqué. I usually have to change the channel after about 45 minutes.”
Once in his later years, he fell at College Church of Christ and hit his head. When the paramedics arrived, they asked him a series of questions. One was, “How old are you?” Bob didn’t miss a beat. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. “It changes every day.”
Bob was a lively, happy man. He dressed as an elf at Christmas. He loved taking cruises. He could fix anything. He adored his family and was married to his wife for 72 years.
“You have entertained us, you have associated with us, you have instructed us, you have inspired us, you have loved us.” That’s how the senior class felt in 1974, when the Petit Jean yearbook was dedicated to him. When he retired from Harding in 1990, his colleagues wrote him letters. One spoke for many when he said, “Harding has lost a giant spoonful of sugar. You always made the medicine go down in the most delightful way.” Indeed, he did.