Nancy Pearce Helmbold, Professor Emerita in Classics and a renowned teacher of Latin at the University of Chicago for more than three decades, died at her home in Hyde Park on Tuesday, Oct. 30. She was 88.
A West Texas native, Helmbold had a tremendous gift and love for language learning — she translated Spanish language calls for the FBI in San Antonio and translated Japanese nautical documents for the Navy during the U.S. occupation of Japan in the late 1940s. But more than anything, Helmbold had a gift for teaching Latin.
“She was an outstanding Latin teacher,” said Elizabeth Asmis, Professor in Classical Languages at Chicago, “She loved being in the classroom and teaching at every level.”
Helmbold had a great interest in Virgil, St. Augstine’s Confessions, the love poetry of Catullus, and she contributed to the journal Classical Philology, but, her longtime colleague, Peter White, Professor in Classics at Chicago, said, “She never set out to make a reputation as a publishing scholar,” he said, “Her energies were devoted to teaching. Her life truly was devoted to teaching Latin.”
During her years at Chicago, Helmbold taught Latin to legions of students, at every level. She taught introductory Latin, advanced Latin for graduate students and intensive Latin for non-classics students. She taught during the summer, said Asmis, and she continued teaching after she retired in 1989. Helmbold taught until she was in her early 80s. “She never wanted to stop teaching,” Asmis said.
Helmbold was a famously demanding instructor, colleagues said. While many Latin teachers softened their approach in recent years, Helmbold never changed her approach.
“Nancy never scaled back the intensity of her drills,” said White, “or her insistence on grammatical precision.”
But students who kept pace with Helmbold were rewarded — and they were effusive with praise. “I have never been so pushed and prodded, stung and bitten, coaxed and cajoled — soothed and then pushed forward again,” wrote one student, Dawn Quitno, in nominating Helmbold for a teaching award in 1989. “Nancy Helmbold should go on teaching Latin for eternity.”
Nicholas Rudall, Professor Emeritus in Classics, Founding Director of Court Theatre, said his longtime colleague “professed to not being a teacher of literature.” But in a central way, Rudall said, this was not true. “For she knew each syllable, each sound, of the language she loved,” he said, “And in her prime, that meant that her students entered into the heart of the literature. That is her legacy ... her students learned the essence of her loved language and made it their own.”
Born Dec. 16, 1918 in Abilene, Texas, Nancy Pearce was the second of three daughters of a typewriter salesman. She was a talented student, especially in Latin. For four years, she participated in a Texas state high school Latin tournament, and won first place each time. “I fell in love with Latin,” Helmbold said, years later in a story in the University of Chicago Chronicle, “because if you got on the team the school would pay your way to the contest.” This was, she explained, the only way she could get a chance to travel. Her father lost his business during the Depression and left the family.
After graduating as her high school’s valedictorian, Pearce attended the University of Texas-Austin, but chose not to major in Latin, describing it as “too square.” After getting her bachelor’s degree from Texas in 1939 in liberal arts, she took the Civil Service exam and began work for the FBI as a secretary. But while working for the FBI in the early 1940s, she learned about another, more adventurous opportunity to use her language skills. The United States Navy needed Japanese translators to work during the occupation. Waters throughout the Pacific — Okinawa, Iwo Jima, the Caroline Islands, Tokyo Harbor — were filled with land mines, and the captured nautical documents were all in Japanese. After attending the Navy’s Language training school in Boulder, Colo. for 14 months, Helmbold began work for the Occupation Forces. She was initially based in Washington. From 1946 to 1950, she worked for the Occupation Forces in Tokyo, as a translator of a wide-variety of documents, such as Japanese Army orders, medical records of British prisoners of war, and a history of the war in the Philippines written by surviving Japanese officers.
She left Japan in 1950 for the University of California-Berkeley. Taking advantage of the GI Bill’s provision for subsidized higher education, Helmbold studied East Asian Languages and Literature, with the goal of becoming a teacher. But during her time at Berkeley, she took a few Latin courses just for fun. Her Latin prowess was noticed by the Berkeley faculty, and she was steered back to Classics.
After receiving her PhD from Berkeley in 1957, Helmbold served as a visiting assistant professor at Mount Holyoke College and the University of Oregon. She joined the Chicago faculty in 1963.
Helmbold’s chief professional interests were the literature and history of the Ciceronian age. She was a member of the American Philological Association, and she contributed reviews to Classical Philology.
During her years at Chicago, Helmbold taught a wide variety of Latin classes, but the class that she was especially known for was the Latin 301 to 303 introductory sequence, designed specifically for graduate students in fields other than Classics, which required some knowledge of Latin.
In 1989, the year she retired, she received the Burlington Northern Faculty Achievement Award for her graduate student teaching. Speaking of her award to the University of Chicago Chronicle, Helmbold described teaching the same Latin class over and over again as “never boring. It’s like a game or a performance” she said, “I would like to think that some of my students will read Latin poetry for the rest of their lives.”
During her tenure at Chicago, Helmbold also served in administrative roles. She was Dean of Students in the Division of the Humanities from 1970 to 1973.
In addition to her passion for teaching Latin, Helmbold was also widely known as an opera buff. Despite a difference in age, Helmbold became close friends with two Chicago alumni, Tim Thurlow (PhD, ’84, JD, ’86) and Ken East (PhD, History, ’84) who were also opera fanatics. They attended roughly 15 operas together each year and traveled to see operas. “Nancy was eternally young,” said Thurlow, “She was always up for doing anything. She never said ‘no.’ That seemed to be her rule of life.”
Helmbold was preceded in death by her husband, William C. Helmbold, and her older sister Miriam Hall Pearce. She is survived by her younger sister Martha Leipziger; her daughter Alexandra Balfour Genetti (Lab, ’74), and three grandchildren, Cerrithwen Genetti, Bronwen Genetti, and Gaelen Genetti.
A memorial service is being planned for later this year in Bond Chapel.