In Memory

Leonard Helton

Leonard Helton

An Appreciation

On June 2, after a brief illness, Leonard Helton passed away.

Those fortunate enough to have had Mr. Helton as their teacher - of U.S. history, economics, or civics - will remember a man passionate about the subjects he taught, and eager to instill what he knew in his students.  Driven by a desire to share his wisdom with those of us less experienced, he made every class not only an excellent learning experience, but also uniquely enjoyable.  His warm smile and ready wit  made class time fun.

Like a candidate for Reader's Digest's "most memorable person," Leonard Helton was truly unforgettable.  Affecting a homespun folksiness, he might almost have passed for an affable country bumpkin.  His keen intellect and broad knowledge, however, would quickly dispel any such notion.  For all students willing and eager to absorb what was being taught, from textbooks or from life, Mr. Helton was a nonpareil classroom leader and builder of character.  Although mild-mannered, he was yet a ferocious and fearless defender of what he believed in, be it the good of his students or the good of the country.

But for the temporal disparity, when Henry Adams mused that "a teacher affects eternity - he can never tell where his influence stops," he could have had Leonard in mind.  That's how great an impression he made on so many LAHS students through the decades.  He was certainly one of the great influences that inspired a disproportionate number of us to become educators ourselves.

For those who want to celebrate Leonard's life, a memorial service will be held later this summer.  Details of the service  will be posted on this page as soon as they are known.  A link to his obituary in the Los Altos Town Crier is included below in the first comment.

Submitted by Steve Grant
Class of 1962

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06/28/17 04:51 PM #1    

Sylvia Salassi (Talarico)

Click here to read the obituary that appeared in the Los Altos Town Crier on June 28.

06/29/17 03:35 AM #2    

Mary Ellen Hoy

Leonard Helton was one of my most memorable high school teachers. In 1962 I was unformed politically and had no idea whether I was liberal or a conservative. I remember his giving us a test to determine our leanings. I don't remember where I came out - simpler times. I also remember black books of original readings about American history, I struggled to glean meaning from the texts as Mr. Helton challenged my mind to absorb history and ideas in a novel way. I did stay in touch after leaving LAHS. A few years ago he sent me a birthday card I had sent him when I was at Stanford. We corresponded briefly.  I was disappointed not to see him at the 50th. Clearly, his was a life of profound influence on the students he taught and so much more. My condolences to his wife and family. Mary Ellen Hoy

PS Turns out I am a liberal! 




06/29/17 11:27 AM #3    

Jan Zahorski (Boel)


Mr. Helton wasn't just my favorite teacher, he was the person who had the greatest impact on my eventual career.  I took his classes for two years.  First American History and then the American Problems class in my senior year. In this class we used original sources to discuss current social and political problems.  It was a class that really made you think.  And you couldn't just express an opinion in any of Helton's classes without being challenged and backing up your beliefs.  Several years ago I found an article in a magazine for Stanford alums which detailed "a remarkable new method for teaching history with original documents", and I sent it to Mr. Helton.  It was the same method he used so many years ago.  He told me then that he had been forced to cancel the class because the then Secretary of Education, Max Raferty, had thought it was "too liberal."  I found Helton's classes so thought provoking that I went on to major in History at Stanford, and eventually persued a career as a lobbyist in Washington DC for AT&T.  I few years ago Allyson Young arranged a meeting with Mr Helton.  We had tea on his patio and he was still sharp as a tack.  Since then we continued our emails.  The last time heard from him was Election Day 2016, where we assured each other "that he couldn't possibly win."  I have been too upset since then to contact him.  Thank you Steve for you beautiful comments.  You caught the essence of what it meant to be in his class.  RIP M Helton.  You were one of the best!






07/10/17 08:05 PM #4    

Jerry Hearn

Since the moment I received word of Leonard’s death, he has not been far from my mind. I spend time thinking of him, slipping down Memory Lane to call forth some long-forgotten episodes of our times together.  Amazingly, after all these years, the images of him are so clear, leaning casually against his classroom podium, gazing into the faces of us students as he alternately regaled us with a story or posed a challenging question to all of us to answer, that is if we had the nerve to raise our hands to do so.  His smile was infectious, his manner mild and humorous, always ready with a sardonic quip that made clear to us in an unsubtle fashion his view on whatever topic we were discussing.  Discussions!  How I remember them as being both challenging and fascinating – my favorites being when Leonard and my best buddy Bill Gross engaged in heated debates over the proper role of government in the economy!  Polar opposite approaches and, yet, somehow there was always some fair ground laid out for debate.  That was one of Leonard’s most admirable traits as a teacher – even though he might have held a very strong opinion on a subject (and most of the time he did) he was always open to hearing others’ points of view and, on occasion, taking one under consideration as possibly being valid!


And the Problems in American History class! – a precursor to Advanced Placement classes to come years later. What an adventure and what a challenge.  As Mary Ellen and Jan have noted, that single class probably had a greater effect on my growth as a student than any other that I had taken.  I remember working to understand some of the words in the essays in those little black books, words that I now am familiar with, but had never heard before.  And writing those interpretive essays!  That was a real struggle for me, as I was being challenged not just to think about the subject and form an opinion, but then to write some sort of cogent, persuasive essay about it.  What a novel idea back then, one which now has become routine.  Leonard was truly far ahead of his time and more than willing to challenge us to become thoughtful and conversant citizens.  I still have one of those books – The Turner Thesis and the Role of the Frontier in American History – occupying a place of honor on my bookshelf.


Over the years, I had lost touch with Leonard after a flurry of interactions while I was in college and nearby in Los Altos.  Then I moved to Montana, and became otherwise occupied.  About a decade ago, my brother, who had stayed in touch with Leonard, set up lunch together, and we began connecting over email and, from time to time, getting together.  I remember, in particular, one lovely afternoon sitting with Leonard out at his patio table, chatting about the books we were reading or had read, discussing world affairs, and, of course, lamenting the appalling state of affairs in our domestic politics at this time in history.  How very fortunate I was to be able to spend that quality time with such an impressive and lovely man.  We had wanted to do that again this spring after the weather had warmed but, sadly, that is not going to happen.


As a final thought, the most profound influence that Leonard had on me was in my chosen occupation / avocation as a teacher.  Into my own classroom I carried what I absorbed from him about the fundamentals of good teaching:  respecting students and their opinions, being a real and active listener, focusing on encouraging critical thinking rather than “giving the right answer”, challenging students to think, exuding love of learning for its own sake,  pondering the mysteries of life, and, above all, reveling in the knowledge that life is full of humor and irony and sharing that with your students.  Leonard once told me as I was contemplating retirement: “Keep on teaching; you will miss terribly no longer being around young minds”. Though officially retired, I took his advice and still volunteer in the classroom where, at all times, Leonard is behind me, smiling.

07/26/17 04:53 PM #5    

Robert Love

I was saddened to learn of Mr. Helton's passing. I remembered him often both as a graduate student in history and as a professor in the History Department of the U. S. Naval Academy for over four decades. Students and younger colleagues often ask why I chose to teach and write history and I answer that my initial notion came from a trio of outstanding history teachers at Los Altos High School.. From Mr. Barkman, I leaned that history is really a “story” and that telling good stories is what keeps students alert. (I have recounted his experience as a WWII infantryman facing a German machinegunner in the woods to every one of my military history classes.) From Mr. Bruce, I learned the importance of narrative and chronology, something I emphasize to undergraduates and grad students alike. (The beautiful Nancy Hall and I spent countless afternoons memorizing lists for his daunting exams; she always bested me.)

I was hardly Mr. Helton's best student for a number of reasons; indeed, I was probably a bit of a pain in class. For one thing, I already had the GPA I needed to get into UW, the only college I ever wanted to attend. For another, I had trouble concentrating as my mind commonly wondered off to the next drive down to seedy old Santa Cruz or a glorious weekend date. (We really had some gorgeous and charming classmates, fellows!) Moreover, Mr. Helton made clear his liberal views early into the semester. When, at dinner, I explained what Mr. Helton had said in class that day, my Dad, an economist by training, would burden me with a detailed lecture as why my teacher was misguided. I soon quit contesting Mr. Helton's assertions and allowed my mind to wonder, with the result that I believe his was the only History course I ever took that I did not “Ace.”

Although I was not then – and am surely not now - attracted to the “conflicting interpretations” approach to teaching history (via the old D. C. Heath series he used), I was fascinated by Mr. Helton's discussion of Jacksonian America. It was, I believe, the subject of his MA thesis (at I recall, U Tenn). As luck would have it, when I attended grad school over a decade later I found myself for two full years the RA (research assistant) of one of the most distinguished scholars of the Jackson era of his day. I could not help recalling every so often that Mr. Helton had sparked an interest in one of the most overlooked but important periods in America's history. Since then I have spilled a little ink and delivered more than a few scholarly papers on the U. S. Navy in the Age of Jackson and every time I return to that subject I think of Mr. Helton, one of a trio of men who in very different ways truly shaped my professional life.

Robert Love

08/07/17 04:29 PM #6    

Allyson Young (Johnson)

It was good to see classmates Jerry Hearn (who delivered the first eulogy), Steve Grant (who flew in from DC for the occasion) and Sylvia Salassi Talerico, together with former students from many other classes, among those who filled the Garden House on August 8 to pay tribute to the memory of Leonard Helton. Also present were faculty colleagues including Ken Bruce and Claire Pelton, friends and family members.  I learned a lot about Mr. Helton's early life which made me admire him even more. I had last seen him when my sister and I visited in March, knowing that he would not be able to attend her memorial gathering but wanting to talk about her with him and Anna, who had been such good friends to my mother over decades.  At that time he was still ready to share opinions, and still supportive of everything we mentioned doing.  He was one of those rare people with a gift of making those around him feel better about themselves after being with him. - an invaluable trait in a teacher!

08/09/17 01:09 PM #7    

Karin Rogers (Benning)

When I was in Mr. Helton's class, he asked us if any of us had a relative who could come and explain the three branches of government.  I told him my dad was a lawyer, and perhaps he might do it.  Mr. H. told me to please ask him.

Dad jumped at the chance to do this, so he spent many nights at our dining room table with a yellow co-polymer tablet (the very same tablet he used to get me through my algebra class, night after night), putting something together for the class.  The speech was very detailed, and maybe in some ways above our heads in information, but he wanted to make it very thorough.

It was such a proud day for me to have Dad there, and very kind of Mr. Helton to let this happen.

Mr. Helton was a great teacher.  I had success in his class...algebra, not so much.

Karin Rogers Benning

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