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Preparing for a good friend's birthday

For the past two years I've been doing the last column of the year on Dr. Henry Frederick Helmholz Jr. and referring to him as "Father Time." In four days, on Dec. 27, Fred will turn 99. I've gotten to know him as a good neighbor and dear friend over the past 18 years, where a space of 8 feet separates our dwellings across the hall.

I asked Fred how he's preparing for birthday No. 99? He replied, "I haven't really thought much about it. I guess you just live a day at a time and the years add up." But Fred is more than just a man with a beautiful and warm smile. He has a caring level for other people that is unsurpassed. I suspect it's because his life has been filled with a variety of topics, and his keen interest in topics across the world remains — health issues, outer space, politics and his specialty, respiratory therapy.

I've asked Fred a lot of questions regarding his early days when he went to school guided by Principal Belva Snodgrass. She was a stern leader from 1922 to 1956 at Rochester High School. As a sophomore, Fred was sweet on a senior girl at one of the school dances. Belva did not look kindly on this. But Fred was probably as stubborn as Belva. They danced together, but Belva ordered all the dancers to dance slightly apart from each other. Fred only stayed in Rochester High for two years and then enrolled in Shattuck Prep School in Faribault.

His life was filled with a loving family, two brothers and one sister. His father, Dr. Henry Frederick Helmholz, was a pediatrician at Mayo Clinic after coming to Rochester from Evanston, Ill., Fred's birth place in 1911. I asked Fred if his family encouraged him to go into medicine. "No way" he told me. "I knew from the start my goal was to be a doctor." Meanwhile, brothers Lindsey, 2 years older than Fred, became a physical chemist, and younger brother Carl became a physicist, and both worked on the development of the atom bomb.

Fred's journey took him to Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Finally he became associated at Mayo Clinic in physiology and became an instructor in respiratory therapy. In fact he started the Mayo Clinic School for students studying respiratory therapy. And that continues today. In earlier years in physiology at Mayo, he often crossed paths with Dr. Frank Mann, who headed up the department of physiology for many years. But respiratory therapy fascinated him so much that he's still involved today through friends on "what's going on" in breathing.


I chuckle when I run in and visit Fred daily and he is listening to a lecture series on past and present regarding wars, science, the stars, Earth and more. His mind is very sharp, and he's called upon by many for answers to questions. I, for one, have picked his brain many times and learned of stories not recorded in the Mayo archives.

Fred has a circle of friends who just enjoy being near him, whether at his Friday noon luncheon meeting of "The Poets Society" or a family reunion with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Fred's late wife, Mary, was the daughter of Dr. Donald Balfour, an early surgeon with Dr. Will and Dr. Charlie Mayo. Balfour had married Will's daughter Carrie, so Fred has a unique touch to that part of Mayo history. Fred's son, Don, lives at San Diego, daughters Martha and Anne in Minneapolis and Seattle, respectively. Occasionally when I visit Fred, he'll say, "I'm getting old." But when he really felt "old" was when son Don turned 70. As he approaches 99, Fred and I admit he's about 20 years older than I am and that he's not interested in adopting me as this point in life. I guess it's not the way to prepare for birthday No. 99.

Just a reminder on Christmas listening on KWEB radio. We'll start Friday noon with many choirs until midnight and again Christmas Day 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. KWEB is AM 1270 on your radio dial. You can also listen on FAN1270.com.

Next week: Faithful readers of these columns are featured again.

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