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College Saddened by Passing of George K. Helmkamp

Riverside, Ca –

Dean Marylynn V. Yates issued the following announcement today:

Dear Colleagues,

I am once again saddened to announce the passing of one of our pioneering faculty members. George K. Helmkamp, who was the second person hired in chemistry in 1953, died March 28, 2015, at the age of 94.

Professor Helmkamp received his B.A. from Wartburg College in Iowa, an M.S. from the Claremont Graduate School, and his Ph.D. from Cal Tech. After a year as a chemistry instructor at Pomona College he was invited to join the faculty at UCR. When he arrived in 1953, the buildings for the new College of Letters and Science had not been completed, so the first six months of work were spent in temporary quarters.

George Helmkamp at a bookshelf (c) UCR

Professor Helmkamp taught the first classes in organic chemistry and was involved in planning and teaching organic chemistry. His research evolved from acetylenes to optically active deuterium compounds, DNA conformation studies, and small-ring sulfur and nitrogen heterocycles. He served as assistant dean of the College of Letters and Science from 1963-66, as divisional dean of natural sciences from 1966-70, acting chair of the Department of Chemistry in 1961 and 1970, as chair from 1970-74, and as associate dean for instruction in 1974. For his teaching he was awarded the Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award and the first Graduate Student Association Teaching Award. He served on and chaired virtually every committee on campus during his tenure at UCR. He retired in 1981 and was granted emeritus status in 1982.

George Helmkamp was described by his daughter Amy as a “Renaissance man.” He studied music before switching to chemistry in college and played the piano, violin and clarinet. His other interests included tennis, glassblowing, bridge, fishing, rock hounding, bird identification and botany. He taught himself the elements of botanical systematics to identify all common plants in the Southwest. Also an accomplished wood worker, Helmkamp designed and built UC Riverside’s mace, which is carried at the head of the procession during the university’s academic ceremonies.

Chemistry Faculty, 1950's (c) UCR

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Hart Schmidt, who succeeded Helmkamp as chair of chemistry in 1974, described him as, “…not only a valued colleague and personal friend from the earliest days of the campus but was virtually a mentor for me in the department when I arrived in 1955.”

Margaret Johnson, whose late husband Professor of Chemistry Emeritus Harry Johnson was the third person to join the faculty in chemistry, said, “George never lost a moment to feel the awe of life.” She also recalled that her husband and George Helmkamp would drive surplus vehicles from World War II to war surplus stores in Los Angeles to purchase office equipment for their department.

Together with George and his late wife Elizabeth (Libby) Helmkamp, the Johnsons traveled extensively, spending a lot of time in Mexico, and George and Libby were able to visit all of the continents on Earth. George took up collecting plants when his daughter Alice, an entomology major at UCR taking a course in botany, was thrown from her horse and broke her pelvis and was unable to go into the field to collect for herself. 

In retirement he became heavily involved with The Nature Conservancy and played a key role in the establishment of its reserve in Big Morongo Canyon. He also continued to collect, identify, press and send plants to the UCR Herbarium until a few months before he died. Curator and Museum Scientist of the Herbarium Andrew Sanders, who knew Helmkamp for more than 40 years, said, “George began collecting in the 1970s and was our biggest contributor for a long time. In fact, he was one of the most important collectors in the history of California” according to a study by UC Berkeley.

Helmkamp is survived by daughters Amy and Ann and was preceded in death by his wife Elizabeth, son John and daughter Alice. Additional information about George K. Helmkamp can be found on the UCR oral history website here:

Marylynn V. Yates
College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences