John A. Helms, 77: Atlanta attorney had a sense of justice; humor, too

John Helms’ family said he had a great sense of humor. But even greater was his sense of justice, and his desire to ensure fairness prevailed, they said.

“There was no disconnect between his values and his actions,” said his eldest son, Paxton Helms, of Washington. “He fearlessly followed where his thoughts led.”

As an attorney in the Atlanta area for more than 40 years, John Helms “was deeply concerned about economic injustice, and the plight of people who didn’t have resources to meet their own needs,” his son said.

“One example is his work on the hunger taskforce at our church, Trinity Church in Atlanta,” added his daughter, Susan Helms Daley of Brookline, Mass.

John A. Helms, an Alabama native, was an attorney for corporations and private practices. He died suddenly at the Atlanta home he shared with his wife of 48 years, Pam Helms, after a suspected cardiac event. He was 77. A memorial service was held Saturday at Trinity Presbyterian Church. His body was cremated by the Cremation Society of Georgia.

It wasn’t until Helms graduated from Vanderbilt University, on an ROTC scholarship, and completed three years in the Navy, that he considered going to law school. His children say they’re not certain he aspired to become a lawyer when he was a child, but they are positive he wanted to change many things about the world in which he lived.

“While he was at Harvard Law School, he went to the Memorial Church every Sunday, and was enormously stimulated by the major Protestant theologians of the day,” Paxton Helms said. “That seems to have stimulated his ideas about moral action.”

John Helms’ law career began in the ‘60s, when he was an associate at the former firm of Powell Goldstein Frazer & Murphy, where he was named a partner in 1971. In 1974, Helms headed to the corporate world, where he served as general counsel for the Life Insurance Company of Georgia. He returned to private practice in the late ‘80s, but by the early ‘90s, he was back in the corporate world. In 2000, Helms retired from the former Travelers Group as an executive vice president.

Helms, who knew injustice was no laughing matter, found ways to discuss tough topics using humor, his children said.

“Dad marshaled his humor to support things,” Paxton Helms said. “So to have dad on a board, meant him not just bringing along his wisdom, but also his wit.”

Edward Helms, of Los Angeles, said his father’s “acute sense of irony” contributed to his quest for justice.

“He had a gift for seeing hypocrisy, and I think that is where so much comedy came from,” his youngest son said.

“There was the humor he used, but what drove his life was his sense of justice,” Pam Helms said, of her husband. “He wanted things to be good, to be right. And it didn’t matter how big or small the issue was, but he knew things needed to be done, and he wanted to be part of getting those things done.”

In addition to his wife and children, John Helms is also survived by his brother, Joseph Edward Helms of Montgomery, Ala.; and four grandchildren.

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