As the nation clawed its way out of the darkest days of the Great Depression, teenager Gerald Houston Helms was growing up fast in a working-class neighborhood in north Charlotte. Just 15 years old, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944, and soon found himself a part of South Pacific battles and Mediterranean aid.
Stationed in the South Pacific on Navy destroyer USS Denebola, Helms volunteered to work as a scuba diver, making repairs and scraping barnacles off the massive hulls of the large warships.
Following the surrender of Japan in fall 1945, Helms was among the scores of veterans returning to the States, looking for a fresh start. After landing stateside in San Francisco, he hitchhiked across the country to get back to his native Charlotte as soon as possible.
Once returned, he followed his mother’s advice and enrolled in a newly created night school housed in Central High School that opened in 1946 to serve World War II veterans going to school on the G.I. Bill. This night school -- the Charlotte Center -- was led by Bonnie Cone, who gave up her high school teaching job to become director.
Houston Helms, who currently serves on the University’s Athletics Foundation Board, recalls a father-son connection through sports. His father brought him to basketball games at the University, including the season in 1977 when the 49ers went all the way to the Final Four. They also shared a love for vintage cars like his 1989 Ford Thunderbird.