The late Terry Helms ’73 was Western Carolina’s first big running star. A native of Kannapolis, Helms ran track and cross country in Cullowhee from 1968 through 1972. “Terry was the superstar on our first cross-country team in 1968,” said university sports historian Steve White ’67. “In that first season, he won nine of the 11 meets the team entered, set five course records and led the Catamounts to a 25th-place finish in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship meet. He single-handedly put WCU on the national cross-country map.”
Helms continued his running rampage over the next three seasons. In 1969, he won five meets, set three course records, led WCU to the NAIA District 6 championship and finished sixth in the national championship meet, becoming the Catamounts’ first All-American in cross country. Another District 6 championship followed in 1970, with the Catamounts finishing 15th in the national championship meet, and the team recorded a 13th-place national finish the following year. On the track and field side, Helms won 15 individual championships in four seasons and helped lead the Catamounts to three district championships, White said.
An education major, Helms went on to a 32-year teaching career, including 26 years at Ledford Middle School in Thomasville. He retired in 2007 and died in 2008 after contracting mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. Now, to honor Helms’ impact on WCU’s track and cross country programs and their longtime friendship, a former teammate and roommate from Helms’ years at WCU, Gaither Keener ’72, and his wife, Beverly Keener, have created an endowed scholarship fund that will benefit WCU athletes for perpetuity.
The Terry M. Helms Endowed Scholarship Fund will provide scholarship support for one WCU track or cross country distance runner each year. The first scholarship from the fund was presented in the fall to Olivia Jacobs, who hails from Helms’ hometown of Kannapolis.
Reflecting on his 40-year friendship with Helms, Keener recalls more than just Helms’ athletic exploits. Although Keener and Helms had competed against each other as high school track athletes, their friendship blossomed in 1968, when they found themselves living on the same wing of Moore Hall. “Terry was a good Christian person with a passion for running, dancing and Motown music,” Keener said. “He always had a smile on his face, and girls loved to flock around him. Everybody loved Terry.”
Keener and Helms became roommates at WCU, and in the following decades their friendship continued as Keener earned a law degree and began his career as an attorney. Keener now works as the top attorney for Lowe’s, the home improvement giant based out of Mooresville. “Terry took me to my first NASCAR race and taught me to play golf. He was in my wedding, and I was an usher when he married his wife, Janice (Helms.) Through the years, he always was an upbeat person, even throughout the illness that ended his life,” Keener said.
WCU track and cross country coach Danny Williamson ’84 MAEd ’86 said the endowed scholarship fund established by the Keeners is the program’s second. “This will be a tremendous asset for our program, and it will allow us on a yearly basis to pay tribute to one of the best who ever competed for WCU,” Williamson said.