Aug. 16, 1923 to May 16, 2018
Jack Helsell, a mechanical engineer, camp director and longtime resident of the Orcas Island community, died peacefully, surrounded by family, on the morning of May 16 in the hand-hewn log house he’d built on his island farm.
The first of four children born to Frank and Ellen Helsell in Seattle, Jack grew up on Hunt’s Point on Lake Washington — a neighborhood that was, at the time, composed primarily of summer homes and surrounded by Japanese-American-owned farms.
He spent his summers at Four Winds Camp on Orcas Island, which was owned and operated by his mother’s close friend, Ruth Brown. It was there that Jack first learned to sail and began to develop what would become a lifelong fascination with the design, creation and maintenance of everything from boats to buildings to machinery.
At 16, as a student at Lakeside, Jack drove the unofficial school bus, picking up his fellow Eastside students each morning. An avid outdoorsman, he enjoyed skiing at Mt. Rainier’s Paradise, ski jumping, hiking, mountain climbing and sailing his flattie on Lake Washington. When Jack was 17, Ruth gave him and his brother the 54-foot yawl Westward Ho, which he lovingly maintained for many years. He eventually sold her and replaced her with the sloop Courageous.
In 1941 he enrolled at Dartmouth College. Eventually, he would go on to graduate from the Thayer School of Engineering, earning a Masters Degree in mechanical engineering, but because of WWII he was drafted and his studies were temporarily put on hold. Eager to put his love of mountaineering to use, Jack enlisted in the 10th Mountain Division, training at Colorado’s Camp Hale. Ultimately, a knee injury forced his transfer, and he served as an infantryman in Europe until the end of the war. Serving in Japan during the occupation, Jack managed to buy a Star Boat using his cigarette rations, and, as a result of his boating experience, was asked to help run some of the smaller U.S. naval vessels stationed there.
Back in the United States, Jack skipped his Dartmouth graduation ceremony to sail the Westward Ho in the 1949 Los Angeles-Honolulu race with his brother Bill.
Returning to Seattle, Jack took a job as an engineer at Pacific Car and Foundry (Paccar). In 1951 he married Jan McKillop, who had also grown up on Hunts Point. Jack and Jan were married after three dates. The first was climbing Glacier Peak; the second, a year later, an all-night sailboat race around Vashon Island, which was followed closely by dinner and a double feature. They were both enthusiastic outdoor adventurers and shared a love of mountaineering and sailing.
After a four-month bicycle trip throughout Europe, Jack and Jan settled on Yarrow Point, where they would raise their three daughters. For a time, he served as mayor of Yarrow Point.
In 1967, Jack and Jan began a new career as camp directors. After a summer at Four Winds Camp, they took over the Henderson Camp on Lopez Island’s Sperry Peninsula, renaming it Camp Nor’Wester. They continued the camp tradition of deep respect for Northwest Coast Native American art and culture and a close connection to nature. They brought their sloop Courageous and added a big boat sailing program and a mountaineering program. Jack believed that as children mature they need physical challenge and meaningful work. Over the next 13 years, Jack’s kind and steady leadership touched the lives of thousands of campers and staff.
When Jack and Jan finally passed on the Nor’Wester torch, it was to turn their attention to creating a homestead on a piece of undeveloped family property on Orcas Island. Jack set to work building a sawmill. The first log went through the mill in 1975, and from there he and Jan spent the next 15 years building a gambrel-roofed barn, a hand-hewn log house, equipment sheds and workshops — all from timber selectively logged on his land and built with the harmony of style and craftsmanship that was so important to Jack.
Lumber from the West Sound Lumber Company, as it would officially be named, has been used to build bridges, parks, marinas and private homes across the county.
Jack keenly appreciated the natural environment of the San Juan Islands and the importance of preservation for future generations. His goal was to create a place of natural beauty that would live on long after the end of his life — a living lesson in the importance of hard work and simple living.
School groups and summer camps were welcomed to the Helsell farm for camping trips and farm visits. Jack always made time to stop and talk with visitors; to share his ongoing projects and hear about their lives. His deep curiosity about the world, his open-mindedness, sense of humor, generosity and kindness stayed with him until the day he died.
He is survived by Jan, his wife of 66 years; brother Robert Helsell of Seattle; daughters Mary Jane (Mark) Anderson of San Juan Island, Susan (Ted) Kutscher of Vashon Island, Ellen Helsell of Orcas Island; and his six grandchildren Berit, Ellen, Sam, Will, Nell and Evan, and his beloved Golden Retriever, Hank.
Donations in his memory can be made to the San Juan Preservation Trust, OPAL, Four Winds Camp and Camp Nor’Wester.
A memorial will be held on Orcas Island at a later date.