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De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum

(Of the Dead say nothing but good)


We all know a few jerks.

Emilee Hines, Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Washington, D.C., History


The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2


When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, I had the good fortune to land a house to rent in Kensington up in the beautiful Berkeley hills.  The owner, a mathematics professor, was taking his family to France for a year sabbatical and simply wanted someone reliable to take care of his house.  Lucky me.

It turns out the neighbor was Robert “Bob” Langston.  Langston was an entomologist with an abiding interest in butterflies.  “He is credited with discovering two butterfly species in the San Francisco Bay Area”.  Among butterfly enthusiasts, Bob Langston is still known as the “King of the Blues” for his work with tiny blue butterflies.  I got to know Bob quite well.  When I moved to Mendocino, he and his family came to visit.  It was on that trip when I first encountered Jacques Helfer, “a faux naturalist who opposed everything” honest environmentalists like Bob stood for.

De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum (Of the dead say nothing but good) is not something I will honor in this post.  Of Jacques Helfer who frequented the Sea Gull Coffee Shop for pie and coffee, I can only say he was a small-minded and mean-spirited man.  There is little good I can add.  I did manage to find a few of his books (only used copies remain) on the flora and fauna of the Mendocino Coast.  I found them somewhat useful.  So there.

Helfer was best known locally for his weekly column in the Mendocino Beacon, “Jack’s Corner.”  The column was “local gossip usually expressing a dim view of ‘hippies’ and the counterculture” according to an anonymous source.

Getting back to my friend Bob Langston, he took me along on a search for the tiny blue butterflies he’d been researching, the Smith’s blue (Euphilotes enoptes smithi).  As we were maneuvering through a field, the tall grasses suddenly parted and out walked our local “naturalist” Sir Jacques toting a shotgun and sporting a dour scowl.  He claimed we were trespassing.  He said he would not hesitate to use the gun if we didn’t leave immediately.  Bob explained about the blue butterflies but this only enraged Helfer further.  It turns out he was of the opinion that he had discovered that species and never received credit for it.  He was not about to share his prize with some citified intellectual.  Needless to say we left, disappointed but not without a few samples of the Smith’s blue Bob had managed to secure in his bag.

I had seen Bob’s massive butterfly collection many times, the small living flowers pinned and labeled and meticulously stored.  I dreamt that night Bob and I were shot and dragged back to Helfer’s house to be displayed like two deer heads on the wall.  Thankfully it was just a dream.


Sea Gull Cellar Bar Napkin Art, artist unknown

Sea Gull Cellar Bar Napkin Art, artist unknown


Jacques (Jack) was known around town for his pugilistic columns in the Mendocino Beacon.  One friend I spoke with about him had this to say:


“In one column he had something negative to say about The Well, the coffeehouse that used to occupy the building at 955 Ukiah St. (originally built as Emmy Lou Packard’s sculpture studio). The Well was a counterculture gathering spot that included movies, live acoustic music and a coffeehouse/bakery menu.

I don’t recall what incident or rumor Jack was going on about, but at the conclusion he rhetorically asked: “When does a well become a cesspool?”

Now it happens that one time he fell or was pushed into his own well, so you can guess what my answer to his question was.”


Another local resident, Scott Peterson, penned a moving tribute to a revered local doctor, Don Hahn, when Doctor Hahn died a few years ago.  Peterson goes into some detail about how Mr. Helfer, long dead by then, did all he could to thwart the environmental movement supported by Doctor Hahn and many others.


Sea Gull Cellar Bar Napkin Art, Nancy Barth artist

Sea Gull Cellar Bar Napkin Art, Nancy Barth artist


Peterson includes this amusing poem in his tribute.


Jack’s body lies over the ocean.

Jack’s body lies over the sea,

But he no longer lies in the Beacon,

And that’s all that matters to me.


To help you understand the first two lines, let me explain the circumstances surrounding Jacques Helfer’s death.  They are murky at best.

He died when he fell or was pushed or jumped from an ocean cliff on his property just north of Jack Peters Creek.  He had health problems and walked with a cane or a walker at the end.  Anonymous Source

Apparently his wife shot him once, in the foot I think.  I’ve heard this from more than one source but cannot verify whether it’s true.  It may have been the cause of his falling into the well.  Another version of the story is that he placed a ladder upside down to descend into the well.  The ladder failed (obviously).  He sued the company that manufactured the ladder.  No word on how the suit turned out.


Sea Gull Cellar Bar Napkin Art, artist unknown

Sea Gull Cellar Bar Napkin Art, artist unknown


In any case, it’s not clear if Helfer’s death was an accident, suicide, or homicide.  He had plenty of enemies one of which may have been his wife who was kept highly sedated most of the time and seldom appeared in public.  Scott Peterson added this final limerick to his tribute to Doctor Hahn:


Tea-totaling Helfer was brash,

When converting his chips into cash,

Twas ironic, I think,

That he veered toward the drink,

Ending Jacques on the rocks with a splash.


The straight-laced Helfer may not have been the “tea-totaller” he was suspected of being.  One source told me Helfer arrived one day to collect the rent from a tenant.  This was in 1964.  Helfer sat down at the kitchen table and proceeded to help himself to the warm brownies just out of the oven.  After the fourth brownie, the tenant’s wife began to get nervous thinking Helfer didn’t understand these were not just ordinary brownies.  My friend said she was pretty sure Helfer knew.  No further details on what happened after are available.  It must have been an epiphany for Jacques.

I have no guilt in exposing Jacques’ many faults even though he’s long dead.  He had none in exposing the faults of others after they died.


When Sylvia Cottington (an avid environmentalist) died in a one-car crash over in Lake County, his column appeared on the day of her funeral, saying something like: “Considering what a bad driver she was, we’re surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

To which I responded, in a letter to the paper: “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, Jacques; it tolls for thee!”

I also remember when Perry Fortney died of an overdose, Jacques responded in his column by saying that his family held a memorial for him, but that he, Jacques, didn’t think a dead druggie deserved a memorial. Charming!   Anonymous Source


Of course, it’s best to serve up your criticism when the victim is alive, and that goes for friends as well as enemies including yours truly.  So, fire away.  I’ve got thick skin.

Once when I was having a particularly bad workday at the Sea Gull, I stormed next door to the house where I lived to vent to my wife.  In the middle of my tirade there was a knock on the door.  It was Helfer.  He held a dirty fork in his hand and claimed to have received it with his pie.  He excoriated me for lax hygiene standards and threatened to write about it in Jack’s Corner.

I didn’t say what I should have said (“Piss off!” or something worse), but I did say that if he wrote about it I’d respond in kind and might even sue him.  After all, how could I know he didn’t dirty the fork himself out of spite?  The crowd at the Sea Gull disgusted him but he depended on them for his gossip column, something Freud might have used in a case study.

He didn’t write about the dirty fork.

That day with Bob Langston was not the first time a Helfer threatened intruders with a gun.


Jack’s father and the family lived in the only house on the west side of Lansing St. (old Coast Highway) north of Agate Beach.  The senior Helfer owned the only access to Agate Beach and charged money to get there. I was told not too long ago by someone who grew up in Mendocino back then that when he was in high school he and buddies would get to Agate Beach during minus tides by walking around from another access to the south.  He said old man Helfer shot at them with a shotgun as if he owned the beach itself and they were trespassing. I think his fee as 50 cents, but that was a lot for a high school kid in the fifties.  Anonymous Source


I have no idea why I thought to write this post on Jacques.  Maybe it’s because our current President shares some of Helfer’s traits.  And, the First Lady … well, I won’t speculate any further along these lines.  I’d rather think about Bob Langston and those tiny blue butterflies.


Blue-Butterfly Day

Robert Frost


It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,

And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry

There is more unmixed color on the wing

Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.


But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:

And now from having ridden out desire

They lie closed over in the wind and cling

Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.


Byrd Baker (left), Jacques Helfer (right) Photographer Nicholas Wilson

Byrd Baker (left), Jacques Helfer (right)
Photographer Nicholas Wilson