Richard J. Helmstadler

Memorial Resolution for Richard J. Helmstadler

Professor Helmstadler passed away on Thursday, February 23, 2012. He was 78 years old.

Dick completed his undergraduate studies at Yale in 1956. He went on to earn an MA in 1958. He earned a PhD in 1961 in modern British History at Columbia University, where he studied under the direction of the eminent British historian R. K. Webb. Shortly thereafter, he joined Victoria College and the Department of History at the University of Toronto.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Dick helped to make the University of Toronto one of the top universities in North America for Victorian Studies. His undergraduate classes at Vic attracted hundreds of students. As a doctoral supervisor, he was in constant demand. Nonetheless, he found time for major administrative roles; he served one term each as Acting Chair of the History Department and as Graduate Coordinator. Notably, he emerged from each position still liked and respected by his colleagues, who often praised his fairness and his good judgment. At the same time, he was an active scholar of religious nonconformity.

His former students will remember him for his passionate intellect and wide-ranging interests. Dick supervised as many as 7-10 PhD students each year. He had time for all of us, even suggesting when he was especially busy that if we could not find him free in the office to call him at home at 8 in the morning. He was excited to read whatever we had written and to push us to be the best historians we could be. He modeled the life of the mind. When each issue of Victorian Studies came out, he could not wait to read it. As a mature scholar, he could point me towards the very latest theoretical work, but he also re-read the complete Sherlock Holmes and radiated enthusiasm about all of the subtle insights that only a scholar of Victorian Britain could bring to it. In his private life he was a keen horseman and family man, devoted to his wife of 52 years, Carol, and to his three accomplished daughters, Jane, Sarah and Anne.

Dick and Carol regularly entertained his students, both graduate and undergraduate, sometimes 16-20 students at a time for dinner at their home. Carol had her own demanding career as president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association and as a scholar of Victorian nursing. These dinner parties were exemplars of academic hospitality – low key and elegant with stimulating intellectual discussion, lightened by the exuberance of an excited canine, who was always desperate to join the party.

Ever open-minded, Dick relished the exchange of ideas across disciplines. For several years he co-taught a senior seminar with his friend and Vic fellow, Prof. Michael Laine from the English Department. At the graduate level he and Prof. Nicky Larry from York University frequently taught a seminar in Victorian Studies that was so spectacular that it easily attracted 25 students a year and always had a wait list. When I joined the faculty at the University of Toronto I had the privilege to co-teach a fourth year Victorian history seminar with Dick. Even though I had been teaching several years by that point, I noticed all the kinds of little techniques he used in the classroom that had previously escaped my attention. I learned a lot that year. His contributions were not confined to the classroom. He edited four books, one a collection of documents with his former student, Paul Phillips, entitled, Religion in Victorian Society, and three scholarly collections: Freedom and Religion in the Nineteenth Century, Religion and Iirreligion in Victorian Society with Richard Davis and Victorian Faith in Crisis with Bernard Lightman.

Dick was a rarity in academia – a gentleman and a scholar, who could be admired as much for his ethics and dedication as for his formidable intellect. My life and the lives of hundreds of students are richer for having been taught by him.

I move that this memorial resolution honouring the life and work of Professor Helmstadter be entered into the minutes of this meeting of the Senate of Victoria University and that a copy be sent to his family.

[The name of the author and the date of the motion are unknown.]