Growing up, the Helmreich children almost never heard the phrase, “don’t talk to strangers.” Instead their father, William Helmreich, encouraged the practice.
“He was someone who had this endless curiosity about people, places and cultures,” said his daughter Deborah Halpern of Chicago. “He just instilled that curiosity and love for people in us.”
“All of us internalized this idea that everyone is fascinating and waiting to talk or be spoken to,” added son Jeffrey Helmreich of Los Angeles. "[My father] was the master of getting people to really open up and tell their stories … He was one of those people who listened loudly, so you felt an extremely engaged presence, but he drew you out to talk a lot.”
Helmreich, a noted sociology professor and writer who called Great Neck home, died on March 28 of the coronavirus. He was 74.
Born on Aug. 25, 1945, in Zurich, Switzerland, Helmreich grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he spent his early days exploring the city with his father. These adventures inspired him both professionally and personally, jump-starting his curiosity and deep interest in seeing the world through the eyes of others.
He went on to become a distinguished professor of sociology at City College and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, director of City College’s Conflict Resolution Center and an author or editor of 18 books. One of his books, “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City,” chronicles his trek walking 6,163 miles through all five boroughs and engaging with strangers in every neighborhood. While “The Manhattan Nobody Knows” and “The Brooklyn Nobody Knows” are published, three books covering his walks through the remaining boroughs are set to be released posthumously.
“He always engaged people very directly,” said Helaine Helmreich, his wife of nearly 50 years. “He didn’t just say, ‘Hello, I’m writing a book about this neighborhood.’ He’d walk down the street and see someone on their porch and say, 'It’s such a beautiful day to sit outside, but is it true there was once a tornado in this neighborhood?’ and he would just get them talking.”
Jeffrey Helmreich recalled his father taking to the streets when he visited Los Angeles, stopping in a bagel store to use the restroom and coming out more than 30 minutes later with the entire life story of a man he had just met. He also once mingled his way into a Hamas rally while in Israel, speaking with members to learn why they were there, said his son.
“He was fearless and he was an unstoppable bonder,” said Jeffrey Helmreich. “He broke every boundary and wall between people.”
Although he was often busy writing his next book or teaching a course, he always made time for his students and his family.
“If there was any opportunity to help someone, he was extremely proactive about that,” said his son Joseph Helmreich of Manhattan. “I’ve received so many emails from students detailing the ways in which he helped them and encouraged them in often life-changing ways. He loved his students and he was always looking to help people.”
He constantly took his family on walking trips through the boroughs and would often get sentimental at family gatherings, explaining that his wife, children and grandchildren “were the most important things in the world” to him, according to Halpern. Helmreich proved his devotion through the little things: surprising his wife with a Meat Loaf concert, trudging through the snow to take then-6-year-old Deborah to a birthday party and reading through Joseph’s novel manuscript twice before it was published.
“As a father, he was always in your corner and always extremely proud of his family,” said Joseph Helmreich.
In addition to his wife and children, Helmreich is survived by four grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son Alan in 1998. The family held a virtual funeral on March 29. A memorial service has not yet been scheduled.