George E. Helmke, 99, died peacefully in his sleep on February 24 th at Fellowship Village in Basking Ridge. He was a scientist, outdoorsman, photographer, community servant into his 90s, and a beloved husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend. His wife of 68 years, Evelyn, died in 2017. George was born in Nyack, NY, and developed his love of seafaring on the Hudson River. He was mechanically gifted, curious about everything around him, and a life-long learner.
After graduating from high school during the Depression, he joined Bell Laboratories in New York City as an apprentice instrument-maker. His career was interrupted when he joined the Navy at the outbreak of World War II. Trained to transmit code, repair cipher machines, and calibrate direction-finding equipment used to hunt Nazi submarines, George served in the North Atlantic and Pacific campaigns, the North African Invasion, and the Invasion of Sicily. Aboard the USS Nelson he participated in the Normandy Invasion on D-Day. At Omaha Beach the Nelson was torpedoed, and the French Government later awarded George the Legion of Honour, as a Chevalier [Knight], in recognition of his contributions to France. George returned to Bell Labs after the war and his career followed the trajectory of some of the greatest scientific innovations of the twentieth century. He worked on teams that, over several decades, developed batteries and technologies to improve long distance telephony; microwave technology; transistors and semi-conductors; and was part of the team that created Telstar, the first US communications satellite, launched into orbit in 1964. Many of George’s senior colleagues went on to win Nobel Prizes. In the 1970s he urged his wife Evelyn to use a microwave oven, a technology he was proud to be a part of, but she remained skeptical for many years. He held patents in adhesives and electroplating, developed clean room technology, and applied his electroplating skills to create smaller and smaller integrated circuits on silicon chips, the foundation of modern computers and digital technology. He retired in 1983 as a Senior Member of Bell Lab’s Technical Advisory Staff.
Retirement gave George the chance to pursue life-long interests. His love of astronomy led him to volunteer at the Sperry Observatory in Cranford, and in photography, at the Fleetwood Museum in North Plainfield, NJ, where he was a curator for many years, and then curator emeritus. The Museum named its photographic library in his honor. George had won many awards as an amateur photographer, and served on the board of the American Photographic Historical Society in New York.
In the local community he was an active member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Basking Ridge, previously having served on the Vestry and as Senior Warden of All Saints Episcopal Church in Millington. He served on the Board of Ridge Oaks Senior Housing, and for more than 30 years worked on the electrical team at rummage sales benefiting the Visiting Nurses Association. In 2000 George published a monograph on Lord Stirling, the Revolutionary War General, for which he was honored by The Historical Society of Somerset Hills.
George became active in the Adirondack Mountain Club after WWII, hiking and clearing trails, particularly in Harriman State Park, NY, at Camp Nawakwa. For the next seven decades George retained his love of the outdoors. He volunteered for many years at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, as a guide. After his retirement he took a course in ornithology at Cornell and became an avid bird watcher. Well into his 90s he made a roundtrip drive of 2000 miles to Bonaventure Island in Canada, home to over 50,000 pairs of mating northern gannets — one of the great trips of his life. Friendly, kind-hearted, modest, and hard-working, George was always willing to help others. In his later years, still gifted with his hands, he volunteered at Fellowship Village, building and repairing items for staff and residents and also overseeing its workshop and greenhouse. He is survived by a son, Arthur Helmke (Mara Carrillo), daughter Kathryn Helmke Zoeller (Jack Zoeller), and a daughter-in-law Paulette Helmke. He is predeceased by a son, Mark Helmke. He has six grandchildren: Andrew and Alexander Zoeller; William and Tansey Helmke; and Anton and Juliet Helmke. He has four great-grandchildren: Evelyn, Harvey and Lily Zoeller and Henry Helmke.
A service will be held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 140 S. Finlay Avenue, Basking Ridge, NJ on March 9th at 1:00 PM. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church or The Fleetwood Museum.