Kathy Helmbock’s Remembrance of Her Brother

I ran to the window when I heard the car crunching up our gravel driveway.  Mom and Dad were bringing home my new baby brother!

He was big –10 pounds, 11 ounces — and stayed that way throughout his life, always the tallest in the picture.  My mother was average size, and his birth nearly did her in.  I guess Dr. Henry at Clark County Hospital did not know how to do caesarians. Throughout his life, John had a long scar on his forehead from the forceps; it became more prominent as his male-pattern baldness set in.

John was a happy baby.  He seldom cried unless he was hungry.  We had a picture of him smiling at the camera at one month old. Folks carried him around in a large white wicker basket.  

We lived a couple of miles west of Winchester on Lexington Road.  A few houses nearby, but no kids around, and Route 60 had no sidewalks.  I wanted a baby to play with, my mother said, but I obviously did not know how long it would take for this baby to grow into a bona fide play pal.  It wasn’t for lack of trying.  As soon as he could walk, John would follow me around, and by the time he was three and I was eight, we played modified games, especially “school.”

When he was five, he was allowed to enter school at the second grade, because he knew how to read at that level.  I obviously had no teaching skills, but he picked up reading quickly and was off to the races academically.  

It was customary for children to “take piano” back then, and I began my weekly lessons at the home of Miss Ellen Bush on Boone Avenue. It was not long before John clamored for lessons, too, and it was also not long before it became apparent that he, not I, inherited the music gene.  (Two of our first cousins became proficient musicians and earned their livings in the field, so it must have been genetic.)

John’s real love was the pipe organ, and he studied with Mrs. Stallings while still in grade school.  He wanted to play the organ at our church, First Christian, but the elderly organist was not about to let “that little Fryer boy” mess with her stops.  Two blocks down Hickman Street, a small Episcopal church welcomed him with open arms, and that began his affiliation with that church that continued until he died.  He played the organ for my wedding when he was 19 and made the rafters roar.  Throughout his education and later life — Transylvania, Vanderbilt, OSU, Menninger’s Clinic and then Philadelphia–he searched out and found Episcopal churches in need of an organist.  He was often choir director, too.  

I did not know John was gay; in fact, I did not know the word homosexual or what it meant.  Looking back, I remember his dressing in my clothes for Halloween, but thought nothing of it.  Even though he was big and tall, he had no interest in playing football, to my father’s chagrin.  His friends would ask, “Ercel, why doesn’t Johnny go out for football at City High?” but Daddy had no answer. 

Our Dad was also a graduate of Transylvania, class of 1926, I think.  The first in his family to go college, he paid his way by washing dishes at the Lexington YMCA.  Afterwards, he got a Masters in Agriculture from UK.  Both of those were very rare in that time for a native of Pendleton County.  Many, many people never went past the eighth grade. Our grandparents on all four sides supported themselves and their families by farming. 

Dad took his degrees from Transy and UK to begin high school teaching, beginning in the small town of Orangeburg, shortly after he and Mom married on October 4, 1927.  In the mid-thirties, he was hired as regional manager for the Farm Security Administration.

He had an office in the county court house with two secretaries and an assistant until that assistant was drafted into World War II. His purpose was to help tenant farmers get federal loans to buy their own land, and he covered several Central Kentucky counties.

They made payments in the fall when they sold their cash crop, usually tobacco.  Since he grew up as a farmer, Dad understood the work and helped many of them achieve financial independence.

John chose Transy because of Dad and because he saw it as a good preparation for medical school.  I went to the UK Journalism School, commuting on the Greyhound until my senior year, when I saved up enough money to live on campus.  John was a freshman, and we talked often on the phone at night.  At l5 going on 16, he was considerably younger (but not smaller) than his classmates, and that took some adjusting.  In addition, he had to actually study for the first time in his life.  Transy was no piece of cake! 

I moved to Cincinnati to work at Procter & Gamble, met and married David and went back to Lexington in 1957 for John’s graduation.  The speaker was President Dwight Eisenhower, and the place was packed!  The speakers’ stand was on the steps of Old Morrison and the crowd extended a far as the eye could see.  Some resourceful kids climbed the campus trees.  

John was accepted at Vanderbilt and left for Nashville.  Again, a lot of hard work that all med students endure.  My strongest memory of that time was a Siamese cat he brought to our parents.  It had been used in experiments and was scheduled to be killed. John named it Zen Buddha.  My folks reluctantly took it in and learned a hard lesson quickly. They made the mistake of feeding it liver and chicken, and it quickly would eat nothing else.  This very pretty cat meowed loudly and ate only the best for rest of its life.

John interned at the Ohio State University Hospital in Columbus, and we went up to visit him several times.  He quickly learned the harsh reality that interns and residents get very little sleep, being called out of their sleeping room any hour of the night.  I saw him chastising a nurse for awakening him unnecessarily, but the hospital may have had rules preventing nurses from doing certain tasks.  He might not have learned that yet.  

When he went to the Menningers’ Foundation Clinic in Topeka (Kansas) for his residency, he found a very homophobic environment.  He was still in the closet, but the atmosphere suffocated him.

In their 2007 book, “American Psychiatry and Homosexuality: An Oral History” (Haworth Press), Editors Jack Drescher and Joseph Merlino included an interview with John that first ran in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Psychotherapy, 2003. In it John described the homophobia in Topeka. Things didn’t improve much after moving to Philadelphia, where he was fired from his University of Pennsylvania residency for being gay. 

Later in the interview, John gives a detailed account of how he was drafted for the performance he did not really want to do – speaking to the American Psychiatric Association meeting in 1972. It was only with a costume, fright wig and voice changer that he would agree to do it. The year after the Dr. H. Anonymous episode, John was on the staff of Friends Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Philadelphia.  Again he was terminated for being gay. John quotes the administrator who fired him, “If you were gay and not flamboyant, we would keep you. If you were flamboyant and not gay, we would keep you.  But since you are both gay and flamboyant, we cannot keep you.”  

John joined the faculty at the Temple Medical School, and had a very tenuous time until he got tenure in 1978. Afterward, he was more open about his homosexuality and the Dr. H. Anonymous event that he later said was “probably the central event of my career.”

He retired from Temple in 2000.  In 2002, when the APA held its annual meeting in Philadelphia, the Gay-P-A honored John and Barbara Gittings at a dinner recognizing its 40th anniversary.  I flew up from Cincinnati to attend.  

John had diabetes, which gave him retinopathy, and in 1997 he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a rather rare condition that affected his balance and left him with only 30% lung capacity.  He would go to the hospital several times a year and phone me, saying, “I’m at Jefferson (Hospital) now, should be home in a few days. 

So I was, at first, not too surprised to get a call in late February, 2003, from a man who identified himself as a doctor at Jefferson. He told me that my brother was there and went on to describe his treatment. Then I said, “So how’s he doing?”  The doctor replied, “He died.” 

I screamed and turned to my husband.  “John is dead!”

While John was in the ICU, he vomited and it went into his lungs.  Medical personnel tried for nearly 30 minutes to clear it out, but were unsuccessful.   No doubt his lung impairment contributed to his death. He had just turned 65.

I dropped everything, packed a bag and flew to Philly. In the next week, I organized his funeral for the next Saturday and met with John’s lawyer to start the legal process I needed to be his estate executor. I could not have pulled it together without the help of his wonderful friends.  If you have never been an estate executor, you have no idea what a job it is.  Those three months spent disposing of books, medical magazines, antique furniture, three musical instruments plus getting his large Victorian home repaired to sell were the most intense of my life.  Thank God for computers!  I was e-mailing daily with Harry, John’s friend and “houseman” who replaced Miss Luder, John’s deceased bookkeeper.  

John loved Dobermans and had a succession of them after he bought the house, installing a doggie door and fencing in the large back yard.  I had to find a good home for Rocket and Sierra after he died.  Fortunately a technician at the dogs’ vet was willing to take them.  She began coming over to feed them after the third floor medical school tenants moved out, so they were comfortable with her. 

The day I flew back to Philly for the closing, I took one last visit to the house with the real estate woman. I sat on the only furniture left, an antique love seat, and Sierra came up and put her head on my lap as if to remind me that she and Rocket were still there.

That evening I went out to the technician’s house, saw the big doggie beds she had bought for them and gave her money for dog food. 

Rocket and Sierra looked happy.  John would have approved.