Remembering Dr. John "Jack" Helfrich

  • Dr. John "Jack" Helfrich served in the U.S. Army, teaching English as a Second Language during the Korean War, before earning his degree in education at Wayne State University in Michigan. He went on to become a classroom teacher and then held a variety of roles in educational leadership and public policy throughout the U.S. before bringing his experience to Ken-Ton. He served as Superintendent of Schools from 1981 to 1994. His tenure as Superintendent followed a difficult time for the district community, a time of significant fiscal challenges and school closures. Dr. Helfrich is credited for rebuilding morale following this difficult time period and taking district pride to new levels. He is also credited for ushering in a new era for Ken-Ton Schools, one of innovation and national prominence.

    This was a revolutionary time in education. New technologies and instructional strategies were emerging, which Dr. Helfrich embraced. He was at the forefront of bringing technology into schools and classrooms. He advanced new instructional models and resources such as 4MAT, cooperative learning, and new reading/math curricula. He also inspired a new generation of educators and leaders, and spearheaded two homegrown institutions that continue to play an integral role in our district today. One of those is the Mentor Program, which positions experienced and skilled educators to mentor new teachers who are at the start of their careers. The other is the Staff Development Center, which provides a framework for advanced training and professional development for Ken-Ton School District teachers and staff. Ken-Ton’s Mentor Program and Staff Development Center were innovative initiatives that served as models for school districts throughout the state and nation.

    One of the things Dr. Helfrich was best known for was bringing people together and celebrating their work, whether through personalized notes to staff, bonding over coffee and donuts at morning meetings, cruises, luncheons, and Hawaiian-themed parties in his backyard.

    Matthew Chimera, President of the Ken-Ton School District Board of Education, began his career as a teacher at Jefferson Elementary School while Dr. Helfrich was Superintendent. He recalls his first time meeting Dr. Helfrich at a monthly breakfast at the school. Even though Dr. Helfrich had never met Mr. Chimera before, he shook his hand and greeted him by name.

    “He really brought people together. He made you want to work. He celebrated success,” Mr. Chimera said. “Kids were doing well because teachers were excited to be here.”

    Under Dr. Helfrich’s leadership, staff were proud to see their schools and district counted among the best in New York State and the nation. All but one of the district’s 13 schools were named New York State Schools of Excellence. Seven were named National Schools of Excellence, a distinction reserved for only a small fraction of the nation’s K-12 institutions. School and district representatives were even brought to Washington D.C. to be recognized and to celebrate their achievement.

    In 1988, Dr. Helfrich was named the very first New York State Superintendent of the Year. In 1992, the Ken-Ton School District was awarded New York State’s very first Excelsior Award for Excellence in Education by then-Governor Mario Cuomo. Shortly following his retirement, Dr. Helfrich was the recipient of the Distinguished Service in Educational Administration Award from the New York State Council of School Superintendents, as well as the Excellence in Educational Leadership Award from the University Council for Educational Administration.

    One of the hallmarks of Dr. Helfrich’s leadership was shared decision making. He charged each school to form a planning team composed of teachers, administrators, community members, and other stakeholders, and arranged for staff to attend facilitator training.

    “His basic idea of shared decision making was that any time a decision might affect you, you should have input in that,” said Dorothy “Dotty” Vienne, a close friend of Dr. Helfrich’s. She served as Principal of both Jefferson Elementary and Edison Elementary while Dr. Helfrich was Superintendent. “If you’re affected by it, you’re in.”

    Although Dr. Helfrich retired in 1994, he went on to educate and inspire new generations of school district leaders in the University at Buffalo's Doctoral Program in Educational Administration. Just as he will be remembered for his role in furthering the district’s legacy of distinction and excellence, he will be remembered as a friend, colleague, and mentor.

    “Jack Helfrich was one in a million,” Mrs. Vienne said. “He affected the lives of so many people so profoundly that you wouldn’t believe.”

Last Modified on December 15, 2020