The Helmerich Family


Library's annual celebration of writing is as much about the community as it is about distinguished authors

By Holly Wall
November 8, 2006.
Reprinted with permission: Urban Tulsa Weekly.

The name "Helmerich" in Tulsa is about as household as a toaster oven and has been for quite some time. One needn't look too far or too wide to see the impact Peggy and Walt Helmerich have made on Tulsa by way of generous donations and sincere concern for the city.

The Helmerich name is scrawled all over the Tulsa Zoo, thanks to their gracious donations; The Peggy V. Helmerich Women's Health Center, a service of the Hillcrest Health Care System, Helmerich Park, the Helmerich Library and OSU-Tulsa's Helmerich Advanced Technology Research Center, a Vision 2025 project, are all evidence of Tulsa's appreciation for the Helmerichs' devotion to their chosen hometown.

Peggy V. Helmerich

But nowhere is there a more visible testament of the Helmerich's continued philanthropy than within the Tulsa City/County Library system. Because of the Helmerichs' giving to the library, the Tulsa Library Trust in 1985 established the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, which each year, which, in addition to recognizing accomplished writers, brings those personalities to Tulsa for a private gala event and a free lecture open to the public.

This year's winner is Mark Helprin, a renowned writer of picaresque novels, who, like many, had never heard of the award until he was notified as being a recipient.

That, though, is not unusual. Many of the authors who received this award had never known of its existence before. That's because the award wasn't founded for the authors; it was founded for Tulsa.

"The purpose is to get important authors to Tulsa," Peggy said. "It's an opportunity for the Tulsa community to avail themselves to some of the most important writers in the world."

"It's like the world coming to Tulsa," said Linda Saferite, CEO of the library.

Award-winning writers names read almost like a contemporary artists hall of fame, including the likes Norman Cousins (the first-ever recipient of the award in 1985), Toni Morrison (1988), Eudora Welty (1991), Ray Bradbury (1994), Margaret Atwood (1999) Joyce Carol Oates (2002) and last year's winner, John Grisham, just to name a few. They are names that people who (heaven forbid) don't even read much will recognize, whom many Tulsans, without the Helmerich Award, would likely not otherwise have the opportunity to hear speak in person.

The event is two-fold; every year on a Friday night (this year it's Fri., Dec. 1), there is an award presentation and a black-tie gala event on the Central Library's second floor, near the Distinguished Author wall. The event costs $100 per person and usually attracts between 350 and 475 people.

The following Saturday morning (Dec. 2 this year), there is a free lecture, open to the public, during which the distinguished author gives a talk similar to the previous evening's. That event, Saferite said, usually attracts around 900 people and almost always ends up being more of a question-and-answer session than a lecture.

The gala event, which has by now drawn a large crowd of loyal followers, initially began as a fundraiser, but Peggy said it's now more of a "friend raiser." Funds raised from the event are used to purchase children's books for the library system, and while those funds are very beneficial, both Peggy and Saferite say the event isn't as much about earning money as it is promoting and raising awareness about the library.

The award originated in 1984 as a product of the minds of Peggy, Pat Woodrum, Executive Director of the Library from 1976 to 1996 and Cathy Audley, the Tulsa Library Trust and public relations manager at the time.

A long-time advocate of literacy, literature and the library, Peggy was appointed to the Library Commission by Robert LaFortune. The library was severely lacking in funds at the time, so with the help of her husband, Peggy, along with Woodrum and Audley, began treating prominent Tulsa businessmen to breakfast and tours of the library in hopes of sparking their interest in donating to an endowment fund.

Peggy said some of the gentlemen were ashamed to admit they had never even been to the library before, but with these three enthusiasts as their guides, became so excited that they didn't want to leave. The endowment fund ended up with $2 million dollars, and the ladies decided they would invite one of the country's finest authors to be their guest for a gala event and lecture, with an award accompanying the event.

"When Pat Woodrum announced the name of the award, I was furious," Peggy said, giving credit to Walt, saying he was the award's most important contributor and mapped out the honorarium.

Now in its 22nd year, the event has honored 21 authors with awards. With the Helmerichs' donation's, the Library Trust, which funds the cash prize to the award winners, has become self-sustaining so that funds from the gala may go directly to the library.

Writers' Guidelines

There are strict criteria for the award's winners, outlined by a selection committee, which include a meaningful body of work, recognition from peers and receipt of other awards and honorariums, and Helprin definitely fits the description.

Helprin is the author of eight books and three children's books and also contributes short stories and articles to publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, New Criterion and The Wall Street Journal.

His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages and include Winter's Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, Freddy and Fredericka and A Dove of the East and Other Stories.

Helprin said he began writing as a child in the second grade. When he was seven, he was offered a contract from Golden Books to write the history of Abraham Lincoln for children.

"My father wouldn't let me. He said 'you just be a child,'" Helprin recalled. "But I kept telling stories, and I have been ever since."

His "inspiration," he said, comes from nature, "from the way things actually are, the bedrock of everything, and from observing nature and people."

"The word 'inspiration; means a breathing in of the Divine Afflatus," said Helprin. "It goes back to the ancient Greeks and means to breathe in the divine inspiration of God from the creations of God; to witness through the senses and beyond the senses and then comment on it."

That's what Helprin does. He witnesses his surroundings and then comments on them. He's not a creator but an interpreter. And though he's won many awards for his interpretations--including the Mightier Pen Award, the National Jewish Book Award and the Prix de Rome, among others -- the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award stood out to him.

"It's run very beautifully," Helprin said, "with tremendous skill and consideration for its recipient."

He said the Trust is very attentive to the convenience of the author, arranging transportation, lodging and any other needs the award winner may have.

"If I were Leo Tolstoy I could have no complaints," Helprin said.