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Juanita Lou (Lauesen) Helms

Photo of Juanita Lou (Lauesen) Helms
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Biography

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

Notes

Juanita Lauesen Helms arrived in Alaska with her family in 1951. They lived briefly in Anchorage, then moved to McKinley National Park in 1952 where the family lived for three years before moving to Fairbanks.

Helms graduated from Lathrop High School and then attended several professional and career training courses as she moved through her career. She married Orville R. Helms in 1962 and they remained together until her demise. They raised their four children in Fairbanks.

Helms started her career as a clerk for Superior Court Judge Jay Rabinowitz, then moved to administrative work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As Helm’s family increased, she shifted her focus to the management of family rental properties and volunteer projects with PTAs and neighborhood land-use issues such as transportation and parks. She volunteered on political campaigns where education, public safety and parks impacted families. Helms began her political career as a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly, then as assembly chair and then as borough mayor.

Helms was the first woman to be elected to the mayor’s position, a glass ceiling she was proud to have shattered. Her terms as mayor coincided with the advent of “glasnost” and the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Russia. She was a driving force in building relations between Interior Alaska and Russia.

On Sept. 10, 2015, the Fairbanks borough assembly honored her for 11 years of service and her trusted leadership by naming the borough administrative center, in downtown Fairbanks on the Chena River, the Juanita Helms Administration Center. In the 1990s Helms received recognition for her work building the Carlson Center and supporting the Sister City Commission from the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Rotary Club. She also was awarded the Queen Bess Award from the Democratic Party for her open-door leadership in Fairbanks.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/fSSomQKLbbc