We are deeply saddened about the loss of our own Distinguished Professor William Helmreich. He was beloved by many students and faculty and had an extraordinary enthusiasm for life and commitment to sociology. Below is the tribute to Professor Helmreich written by Professor Lynn Chancer, Executive Officer of the PhD Program in Sociology.
I wrote all of you a few days ago informing you, with great sadness, about the death of William (“Willy”) Helmreich (1945–2020) who taught at The Graduate Center and at City College starting in the ’70s until he passed away earlier this week, on March 28th, from the coronavirus now devastating our city, nation, and the world. Many fortunate Graduate Center students and alums came to know Willie for his wondrous and encyclopedic knowledge of New York City, and for his ethnographic commitments, sensibility, and determination to share with students, faculty and the world the multi-faceted preciousness of our shared urban home that he called “the world’s greatest outdoor museum.”
But what I did not know about Willy were things I learned not from him directly but through the outpouring of articles, coverage (in and beyond The Graduate Center) and emails that have been paying steady tribute to his life and the importance of his work — some of which, including from CNN and The New York Times and (most recently) The Graduate Center’s own tribute, can be seen below.
I did not know, for example, that Willy came to the U.S. as a child from Switzerland and that his parents were Holocaust survivors. Nor did I know that he had written 18 books, including The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry, making him a scholar of religion as well as of urban life. While I knew of his famous The New York Nobody Knows (for which he walked 6,048 miles to cover every city block in four years, and wore out nine pairs of shoes), I did not know that — as The Guardian recounted in its rave review (November 29, 2013) — the book was partly inspired by Willy and his father playing “Last Stop,” a game whereby they rode the subway from 103rd Street on the West Side to the end of the line like “intrepid explorers” after which “they would discover the area’s secrets on foot.” Nor did I realize that after Princeton University Press offered him five new book contracts (one for each borough after the New York volume’s earlier success), Willie had already finished The Manhattan Nobody Knows. According to Sam Roberts in The New York Times (September 6, 2018), “William B. Helmreich has done it again”; as Roberts continues, “Professor Helmreich is not the sort of tour guide who can be supplanted by a fact sheet, no matter how encyclopedic. He is, first off, a storyteller. His New York narratives are drawn from the extraordinary characters he more or less randomly encounters along his route.” Then too as Mitch Duneier, an admirer himself of Willie’s ethnographic work, pointed out, Princeton University Press is about to bring out The Queens Nobody Knows in the fall; Willy, with great and apparently characteristic attention to detail, had just recently endorsed the book’s cover-to-be with enthusiasm.
Last but not least, I did not know enough about Willy to realize how avidly his students enjoyed and were engaged by his classes at City College and The Graduate Center. Whereas Rate My Professors often portrays faculty negatively and ungenerously, when looking up Willy, one is greeted with sincere-sounding and close-to-perfect rave reviews such as “He’s a caring person, he’s amazing”; “His class was very inspiring”; “Best professor I ever had”; and “… his class was always something to look forward to.”
Before turning to colleagues’ vignettes and memories, though, I wish to confess that I myself did not know Willy very well before becoming the Executive Officer of the Sociology Program nearly three years ago. But I recall, now very fondly and meaningfully, his walking into my office to introduce himself and starting to tell me about his five-book series with pride and patience. Willy seemed (even at first meeting) so kind and friendly and utterly committed to teaching and participating in the life of The City University of New York — his beloved academic home. He did a “First Friday” lunch in our Ph.D. program that I attended, usually an hour-long event but which went over (to more than two hours) as Willy captivated the faculty and students assembled with his amazing stories and knowledge of the New York nobody but he seemed to know with such assiduous detail and from patient scholarly excavation. It makes me sad, as I write this, to recall that we had an appointment this May for Willy to take me on a long walk into Queens neighborhoods. Yet his books — and most of all, his amazing commitment to New York City, a place now struggling, but which I suspect Willy would trust can emerge even stronger from our current trials — will go on to delight and interest New Yorkers, locally and from afar, academics as well as a wider range of readers. Willy himself, I believe, would be proud of the respect and love his life and work have inspired.
While my own memories are brief, I would like to pass on other stories from Willy’s colleagues for whom his enthusiasm about life and the city likewise became contagious. In addition to emails I received from Ruben Rumbaut, Norma Fuentes-Mayorga, Leslie Paik and many others, here, for example, are some thoughts from Roz Bologh, William Kornblum, Leslie Paik, Phil Kasinitiz, and Rob Smith. In Roz’s words,
I was fortunate to have had the experience of accompanying Willy on one of the walks he was taking for his first book on walking New York. Willy had told me much earlier that he was doing this book and had remembered to call me to ask if I still wanted to come see my old neighborhood with him. I jumped at the chance. It was wonderful being back on the block where I had grown up. When I told Willy that I had gone to the elementary school at the end of the block, he suggested we try to get inside — not something I would have thought to attempt. It was a privilege to see how Willy worked. I was impressed with how structured he was about the walking. He was very aware of the time and how much of the Bronx (which neighborhoods) he wanted to cover on that day. While I was interested in reminiscing and re-experiencing the past, he was focused on the task at hand — seeing and learning what there was to see and learn about the place as it was now. I remember three conversations he had with people he came across. Two of the conversations were extremely brief — more like casual greetings, one was lengthier and quite interesting. To call them “interviews” would convey the opposite of what he did. He would just engage somebody in the same way he might engage them if he just happened to be walking in that neighborhood. One could not say that he was looking for people to engage. He was looking at the neighborhood.
I gained a completely new appreciation for librarians after Willy engaged the librarian in the library I used to go to as a child. In another neighborhood, he just asked a simple question about the place we were seeing and was satisfied with the one sentence answer; he did not try to extend the conversation or “extract information.” He was neither a “tourist” nor a “social scientist,” he was just Willy walking and looking around and talking to people as he always did — not as if he were observing and interviewing to gain information for a book.
And, according to Bill Kornblum,
Bill Helmreich — it’s impossible for me to think of him in the past tense — is an unforgettable character. His engaging self is alive in his wonderful New York books. They will be baselines for measuring what is lost and what survives in the neighborhoods he walked through, and the restaurants and shops where he schmoozed with everyday people. He invited me and many others to walk the neighborhoods with him. The editor who signed his books at Princeton, Eric Schwartz, wrote to me that, “during the writing of the first book he took me out for walks a few times and it was magic to see him in action, especially places he had been before. Everyone remembered him.” He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed. We were friends for over 40 years and shared our love for the city and its great public university, before this biological and social disaster stole him from us.
Leslie Paik, Willy’s colleague from City College, sent me the following:
Willy was a great friend and mentor, teaching me a lot about navigating academia (and especially CUNY) with integrity and humility. His intellectual curiosity was insatiable; he always quick to share his latest findings and observations, most recently from his walks all over his beloved NYC, and then ask me “what are you working on?” with genuine interest about my answers.
Beyond his important and prolific scholarly work, Willy’s greatest contribution – at least to me – was his utter devotion to and delight in his family. He literally radiated joy as he talked about his wife, children and grandchildren. He always made sure to tell of his love for them to others like me who were equally blessed to know him. He will be so deeply missed.
From Phil Kasinitz, our EO for 14 years who knew Willy quite well over time:
Not all sociologists are naturally “social.” Willy was amazingly so. He could, and did, talk to literally anyone: from ultra-orthodox yeshiva students, to members of the Black Panthers, from Haitian villagers to Cajun musicians, from cops to drug dealers. More important: he could listen to anyone. He asked strangers the simplest questions: “what’s going on here?” “why are you doing that?” “where did you guys get those neat jackets”? with a such an unpretentious openness that, most of the time, the most unlikely people would respond openly and honestly. Pretty soon they were talking about their lives and what mattered most to them. It did not always work, of course. His harrowing encounter with the TonTon Macoute would make a great dinner table story years later, but it must have been terrifying at the time. But, a lot more often than one might think, his honesty and empathy proved contagious.
This was all the more remarkable given that Willy never, for a moment tried to “blend in” with the people he studied or for that matter, the people he worked with. He was always who he was: a Jewish guy from the streets of New York, an immigrant, a child of refugees, a son of the working class, a true intellectual by inclination but very much a plain spoken, “regular guy” in terms of personal style. He was a character, no doubt, and sometimes this led people in the more rarified precincts of academia not to take him as seriously as they should have. Their loss. Listening to and reading Willy was not just instructive. It was a real pleasure. Having had the chance on a few occasions to tag along when he took students around New York neighborhoods and to see the City through Willy’s eyes, is one of my favorite memories of teaching at CUNY.
Willy had a long, respected and amazingly varied career. Yet truly broad recognition in the profession and fame outside of it came relatively late, when his life-long hobby of walking the streets of New York for edification and exercise gave birth to an improbable academic best seller, The New York Nobody Knows. Suddenly Willy was everywhere: book stores, TV, ads in the subway. I am so glad he got the chance to have that moment. Yet through it all he remained completely Willy, and that, I suspect, explains much of the book’s popularity. His love of the city, its unlikely corners and juxtapositions, its history and its people, comes through on every page.
It is an especially cruel irony that, just a moment when we are so cut off from public life, from the streets, from the world of chance encounters, we have lost on of the great chroniclers of that world. I mourn for that world, just as I mourn for Willy, taken from us far too soon. For now, I await the day when that world will reemerge. Sadly, I know that, sometime in that future, I stumble over something funny or strange or beautiful in an unlikely corner of the city and think “I need to tell Willy about that”. I’m glad to have known him and I know I will miss him.
And last but not least, from Rob Smith, Baruch College and the Graduate Center:
I am happy to offer my tribute to Willy, who I met in the first week of my first job as a Visiting Assistant Professor at City College’s Sociology Department. Willy was very welcoming, and wanted to know all about the research I was doing. When I told him of a field site where I was teaching English to Mexican immigrants, he asked about the street, and got specific. He named the businesses on the corners of that block. I was flabbergasted. But that was Willy. Enthusiastic, kind, smart, and funny, and he knew New York City.
Willy extended that first conversation in the same way he extended all our other conversations. He asked about my research, but really listened. How did I develop relationships with people? What do they want to know about you? Why are you doing this research? And he had stories, which he used to relate to what you had just told him – Oh, that is like the time I… Willy’s love of meeting and talking to new people of New York made him instantly likeable, and he loved it when he could share that love of New York and its people with others.
Willy’s generous embrace of this newcomer led me to read his oral history book of the Holocaust survivors who found refuge in the US, Against All Odds. It told a different story about survivors of the Holocaust, focusing on how so many had lived meaningful, successful lives in America, despite what they overcame. And here again, I found Willy’s path and mine overlapping. Some of his interviews took place in the same south Jersey farm towns where I was working with Mexican farmworkers at the time.
Willy gave me a piece of advice that I will never forget, and which still makes me chuckle. At my first faculty meeting at City College, one of my very senior colleagues asked me if I wanted to organize some huge event that they did not want to organize. I said I was hesitant to take on a longer-term project, because I was a Visiting professor – I might not even be here when the event happened. After the meeting, Willy took me aside, putting his hand on my shoulder, and said: Listen, you did right in not taking on that job (I think it was organizing a conference). That is not something a Visiting Assistant Professor should be asked to do. But the only thing I would say is Never Say No. Just say yes, and then don’t do it. If you say No, you will get a reputation as someone who doesn’t want to do things. If you say Yes, but don’t do it, then everyone will forget. Like so much with Willy, this was an act of generosity – an established scholar telling the greenest, newest, lowest status guy in the department (not even in the department, only visiting it) how to navigate the unseen, fakakta, rules of conduct. A decade later, when I returned to CUNY after having a job at a much less fun institution, Willy and I shared a good laugh when I recalled his advice.
We are all poorer for Willy’s passing. The Sociology Department at the GC will be less fun without Willy. But we can all pay him tribute by talking and listening to each other, and to strangers, in our city that he loved.
Thank you for reading this and thanks to those who contributed in many ways to my being able to write this tribute. Please don’t hesitate, anyone else, to write in more that we can store in our Sociology Commons for others to read now and in the future.
Warmly, and with all my best wishes for your health and safety to all of you, Lynn