The Journal Gazette
Friday, January 22, 2016 10:01 pm

Leadership icons

Fort Wayne is a city on the upswing, with strong leadership. But the leaders of today stand, as the saying goes, on the backs of giants – extraordinary people like Vivian Schmidt and Walter P. Helmke, whose lives ended this week.

Politics and society were very different in 1971, when Vivian Schmidt became the second woman ever to be elected to the City Council. She served with distinction, earning a reputation for hard work and the ability to forge consensus.

When the council presidency was open, Schmidt’s name inevitably came up. “Each time,” The Journal Gazette observed in 1979, “one or two members objected to a woman council president.”

Schmidt, a former teacher who was described in news stories of the time as a “homemaker,” fought to advance the cause of women locally. She helped to found the Fort Wayne Women’s Bureau and chaired a city commission on the status of women.

In 1980, after Schmidt was the top vote-getter in the election the year before, her peers elected her council president. Alas, two years later, she and her husband, William, moved to St. Louis, and later to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where she died Sunday at 80. Schmidt remained involved in public issues throughout her life, encouraging other women to run for public office.

Walter P. Helmke was an attorney who served as Allen County prosecutor and as a state senator. He was part of a family whose name has been synonymous with public service.

His father, Walter E. Helmke, also served as prosecutor and helped found IPFW. His son Paul served as mayor and as president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Another son, Mark, was a journalist and press secretary to Sen. Richard Lugar.

Walter P. Helmke worked for Fort Wayne through innumerable community groups. He was president of the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, Allen County Bar Association, Parkview Hospital and Leadership Fort Wayne. 

“Dad was always the first to step up and volunteer,” Paul Helmke recalled Friday. “He told us our mission in life wasn’t just to make money.

“We’d sit around the dinner table discussing government and politics and current events,” Helmke said. “That’s what he taught me – to give something back, to look out for the community and for the greater good.”

Walter P. Helmke died Wednesday at 88 at his home in Angola, less than a month after the death of his wife, Rowene. His son Mark died in 2014.

“What always amazed me was how much he loved people,” Paul Helmke said of his father. “He knew everybody’s name. He was open, he was friendly to everybody.”

A lifelong Republican, Walter P. Helmke worked equally well with Democrats and Republicans, Paul Helmke said, acknowledging that description could be applied to Vivian Schmidt, a Democrat, as well. “In my mind, they are the exemplars of what public service should be.”

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