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Juanita Lou (Lauesen) Helms arrived in Alaska with her family in 1951, living most her life in Interior Alaska, including a cherished three years in the Denali National Park. Together with her devoted husband of 45-years, Orville “Sam” Helms, she raised four children in Fairbanks.
Helms started her professional career as an in-court clerk for Superior Court Judge Jay Rabinowitz, and then moved to administrative work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As Helms’ family grew, her focus shifted to the management of family rental properties, volunteer projects with the Girl Scouts and parent-teacher groups, and serving as an active advocate for neighborhood planning and land use issues. She volunteered on political campaigns to champion, promote, and support policies that impacted families.
In 1980, Helms began her political career as an elected, at-large member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly. She ran successfully for a second term, serving five-years, including a year as Presiding Officer of the Assembly.
In 1985, distressed by the state of Fairbanks North Star Borough affairs, she ran for borough mayor. In what the media dubbed a “stunning upset” Helms unseated a two-term incumbent to gain the borough’s top spot.
After a successful re-election bid, winning over 60% of the vote, Helms served another three-year term as mayor. Helms stewarded the borough through difficult financial times, while accomplishing the construction of a community convention center, improving air quality, creating an Office of Economic Development, and establishing sister-city relationships with Japan and the Soviet Far East. She was known for her open-door policy, valuing and respecting all input from supporters and critics alike.
Helms was a long-time friend and strong supporter of interregional and international relations between Alaska and the Sakha Republic, and between the United States and Russia. Her diplomatic efforts led to the Treaty of Friendly Relations between the cities of Fairbanks and Yakutsk, signed 20 years ago, at a time when democratization was just starting to take hold in the USSR.
As the first woman to be elected as borough mayor, and through numerous organized efforts to mentor, educate, inspire, and bring women together through professional workshops and conferences, both internationally and locally, Helms served as a powerful leader and role model to generations of women in Fairbanks and beyond.
Upon her death in 2009, many community members reflected on her contributions, management, and leadership. A colleague, Melissa Chapin said, “She was so open-minded and so accepting, and just carried a practical, down to Earth, realistic, pragmatic approach to everything,” Dermot Cole wrote in a Column in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, “Two reasons for Juanita’s success in politics are that she knew how to be tough and how to get along with people. People enjoyed being around her, and Juanita liked to laugh.”
Last September, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly honored Helms for her 11 years of trusted leadership with a resolution to name the borough administrative center after her. The center, located in downtown Fairbanks along the Chena River, is now labeled the Juanita Helms Administration Center. Over the years, she received recognition and accolades from numerous entities, organizations and foreign officials, for her diplomatic efforts in developing and supporting sister-city relationships. To Helms’ tribute, after objectively serving in a non-partisan capacity for most of her career, the Alaska Democratic Party honored her posthumously with the Queen Bess Award for selflessly giving her time and energy to promote democratic principles.
At the end of her life, Juanita took the most comfort from the company of her grandchildren who she considered her life’s joy. Through them, she has helped prepare a new generation to carry on her life of service.
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/fSSomQKLbbc