Paul Helmreich, professor of history and college historian, emeritus, dies at age 87

Paul Helmreich, Wheaton professor of history and college historian, emeritus, died on June 10 in Providence, R.I., at the age of 87. The professor joined the faculty as an expert on modern European, Russian and modern Middle East history and later became the preeminent scholar on Wheaton’s early years.

During his near 50 years at Wheaton (as a faculty member from 1957 to 1999 and college historian from 1985 to 2006), the beloved professor touched the lives of generations of students, faculty and staff with his contagious passion for the past. Long after retiring, he frequently visited campus with his wife, retired Wheaton archivist Zephorene Stickney Helmreich.

He played an integral role in the growth of the History Department, particularly as chair (1968–1975, 1982–1983, 1986–1988 and 1993–1994). His involvement in faculty administration and curriculum development was extensive. He served on and chaired multiple committees, including the Committee on Educational Policy, the Committee on Tenure, the Appeals and Hearing Committee and the Budget Advisory Committee. He also was the college’s first NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative from 1995 to 1999.

Professor Helmreich received the Summer Stipend Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1967 and held the William C.H. and Elsie D. Prentice Professionorship at Wheaton from 1982 to 1985.

In 1970, at the request of the graduating class, he gave the Commencement speech to talk about student activism related to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the shooting at Kent State University and the Vietnam War. He recalled the event as “probably the toughest single assignment I ever had [at Wheaton]” in a May 17, 2010, article in The Sun Chronicle (Attleboro, Mass.) on the 40th anniversary of the speech. 

He was bestowed the title of college historian in 1985 as Wheaton celebrated its sesquicentennial, which coincided with the publication of his first book, Wheaton College, 1834–1912: The Seminary Years. In 2002, he published an expanded version of the book with Wheaton College, 1834–1957: A Massachusetts Family Affair. Shortly before his passing, he gave Wheaton permission to make this book available to the public on the DigitalRepository

He also wrote the book From Paris to Sèvres: the Partition of the Ottoman Empire at the Peace Conference of 1919–1920 and was widely published in academic and scholarly journals. His work has appeared in the Encyclopedia Americana and the Americana Annual

In addition to the indelible mark he left at Wheaton, Professor Helmrich made a lasting impression on the town of Norton as an active resident and volunteer. He served as chair of the finance committee and was a member of the Norton Historical Society and the Trinitarian Congregational Church. Also, for 20 years, he umpired games for the Norton Youth Baseball Leagues. 

Professor Helmreich received his bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in 1955 and his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1957 and 1964. At Amherst, he played trombone, was a four-year member of the swimming team, and received the Tug Kennedy Award for sportsmanship, leadership and ability.