'A truly wonderful man': Prospect Heights Mayor Helmer remembered as one who shared his blessings

  • Prospect Heights Mayor Nick Helmer, who died last week at age 79, was remembered Thursday during a funeral Mass at St. Alphonsus Liguori Catholic Church in Prospect Heights.

      Prospect Heights Mayor Nick Helmer, who died last week at age 79, was remembered Thursday during a funeral Mass at St. Alphonsus Liguori Catholic Church in Prospect Heights. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, 2019

 
 
Updated 2/3/2022 9:29 PM

Three-term Prospect Heights Mayor Nick Helmer was remembered Thursday for his tireless work in numerous endeavors throughout a life that began 79 years earlier in war-torn Yugoslavia.

During a funeral Mass at St. Alphonsus Liguori Catholic Church in Prospect Heights, Helmer's son, Nick Helmer Jr., expressed sympathy for those who had been deprived of a mayor, coach, business colleague and friend.

 

"For me, he was all those things," the younger Helmer said of his father.

With the late mayor having been a consummate and passionate real estate professional for more than half a century, his son jokingly raised the question of whether he had already entered heaven or was still outside the pearly gates negotiating with St. Peter for better accommodations.

Helmer died Jan. 26 after a brief hospitalization for complications suffered from a fall during a recent ice storm.

Though real estate development and aviation were lifelong passions, Helmer's interest in elected politics that led to him becoming mayor of his beloved "Prosperous Heights" 11 years ago came relatively late, his son said.

"My family moved here in 1985, but it wasn't until 25 years later that he decided to run for mayor," Nick Jr. said. "No one lost more sleep thinking about how to improve the city than my father."

Though born into a middle-class family in Yugoslavia in September 1942, the future mayor spent most of his preschool years in a communist detention camp there.

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The exact details of the family's escape to America remain sketchy to their descendants, but they involved the enlistment of aid from relatives in Austria, Nick Jr. said. The first chocolate bar his father ever had was given to him by a U.S. serviceman during that passage, he said.

Helmer would later interrupt his college education to spend three years in the U.S. Army, serving as a newspaper reporter, photographer and radio broadcaster for the Central France area and becoming a true Francophile, his son said.

When the younger Helmer played basketball at St. Viator High School during the '80s, his father would often suggest to the coach that his son get more time on the court.

"My dad is THAT parent," he joked.

Helmer caught the coaching bug himself after his son graduated and continued to serve in that role at St. Viator for decades.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Nick Jr. said his father never cursed and asked anyone at the funeral with evidence to the contrary to share the story with him afterward.

Helmer and his wife, Gail -- whom their son called the glue that held the family together -- were married for 57 years.

The Rev. Bob Heinz, the celebrant of the funeral Mass, also highlighted the roles the couple played in the community.

"We gather to celebrate the life of a truly wonderful man," Heinz said. "Nick and Gail were a big part of this community for years."

As reflected in the scripture readings the family chose, Heinz said, Helmer exemplified the person who recognizes his blessings and shares them.

"I think we've all seen it, and today we've heard about it," Heinz said. "He learned that probably early on in difficult circumstances."

Helmer's successor as mayor has yet to be appointed by the city council. That person likely will serve the remaining 15 months of Helmer's term, officials said.

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