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William J. “Bill” Helder, a pillar of the Lansing community, wasn’t born in Lansing. But his life and death Aug. 29 at the age of 85 shaped the community he made his home since the ‘50s.
Riverwalk filled its theater Monday morning for a celebration of life to Helder and tributes have poured in on Facebook. In addition to losing a longtime friend and mentor, Tom Ferris, former Riverwalk Theatre president, said Lansing lost an influential advocate for the arts. “People listened to him,” Ferris said. “He was very influential, because of his personality and because of his acceptance of other people.”
Among his many titles, Helder was a teacher and administrator with the Lansing School District and the past president of Riverwalk Theatre’s board of directors. He also helped found the Okemos Barn Theatre, Riverwalk Theatre, Riverwalk’s Blackbox Theatre and is credited with heading the capital campaign that allowed Riverwalk to purchase its building.
Jeff Magnuson, current president of Riverwalk Theatre, says Helder’s impact was extensive.
“He’s one of a very few number of people in my 30 years of community theater in the area that had such a broad impact on so many people,” Magnuson said. “There are few people who do all the different things that he did, and who encourage so much participation from so many people. We all looked to him, not just as a mentor, but as a leader who is always there. And now he’s not.”
Magnuson first met Helder while attending Everett High School.
“Bill was still at Everett High School as an administrator and he added me to student council for the district. He was nothing if not encouraging toward my spirit, my creativity and all the dreams I had at the time. That never stopped throughout the 30 years that I knew him.”
Ferris also had Helder as a teacher in seventh grade at what was then Otto Junior High School. “He was a wonderful teacher,” says Ferris. “However, he was the only junior high school teacher to kick me out of class. I was doing something inappropriate and he called me on it. That didn’t deter me from continuing to like him as a teacher.”
Ferris says Helder brought his passion for education into theater.
“He was as in charge about his theater, as he was about education,” says Ferris. “He always approached it very meticulously. He was detail oriented, with an eye toward mentoring, to bring new people in and help them get started. I think that was the quality I admired most and tried to emulate.”
Helder was known to many in Lansing as an actor, director, playwright, grant writer, husband, father and friend. The auditorium of the Hill Center for Academics & Technology was named after him for his contributions to the arts in Lansing schools, and the lobby of Riverwalk Theatre is dedicated to him and three others for their outstanding contributions to the theater’s construction.
Magnuson said another important part of Helder’s legacy is connecting children with theater.
“I can’t say enough about how he put value in children’s theater as a part of Riverwalk,” Magnuson said. “I believe it goes back to his experience as a teacher, recognizing that in order for theater to thrive … you have to have a connection with children.”
“I don’t know that his sense of humor is the first thing that people think of. And yet there was a childish quality about Bill — he appreciated the spirit of young people. There was a kid in there somewhere all the time that was encouraging other children to find the imagination, the wonder and the amazing gift that can be found in theater.”