“Mayor Bobby LaFortune, who was our neighbor at the time, said, ‘Peggy I want you to be on the library board,’” Helmerich says. “I thought, ‘Oh mercy, I can’t turn him down,’ but I thought, ‘What am I doing?’”
Although she felt out of place at first, Helmerich found her place fund raising for the library.
“Someone said, ‘We’ve got an endowment fund with only $300 in it, and I thought, ‘You know, that’s kind of a shame,’” Helmerich says. “So the library head and I decided we would do some money raising and have an author come to our library for the 10th anniversary.”
What started as a simple fundraiser for the library has evolved into the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, an annual honor awarded to an American author in Tulsa.
Born in a small town in Mississippi, Helmerich attended Northwestern University and studied classical theater before moving to Hollywood to begin a career in acting.
Helmerich, then known as Peggy Dow, signed a seven-year contract with Universal Studios, making her on-screen debut with Undertow in 1949 and most notably appearing as the nurse in 1951’s Harvey with James Stewart.
“I was very fortunate to get some terrific parts,” Helmerich says. “There were some B-movies which everyone has to sort of do to pay their dues, but I was really so fortunate to get nice parts.”
After only three years, Peggy Dow married Walt Helmerich, an oil and gas man, in 1951, and moved to Tulsa to begin a family. Now more than 60 years, five sons and 13 grandchildren and great-grandchildren later, Helmerich, along with her late husband, has lived her life dedicated to improving the health and arts landscape of Oklahoma.
Although Helmerich has spent her life in service, this year was particularly noteworthy as the University of Oklahoma renamed their drama program, the second oldest in the country, the Peggy Dow Helmerich School of Drama.
“That was really a wonderful honor,” Helmerich says. “It’s a marvelous school full of the most beautiful young people; I said I was really sorry they couldn’t name it for some big movie star rather than someone who was a kind of starlet type who was just in the beginning of a career.”
In addition to Helmerich’s donations to the school of drama, she has also supported numerous organizations across the University of Oklahoma system, as it was Walt Helmerich’s alma mater.
Also this year, the Peggy V. Helmerich Women’s Health Center opened a second center at Hillcrest South to help provide education and other services to Oklahoma women.
“We have a wonderful hospital that’s a real state-of-the-art place,” Helmerich says.
Tulsans would be hard-pressed to find an organization that hasn’t been touched by the generosity of the Helmerich family. For Peggy Helmerich, her faith is what has made it all possible.
“Being grounded in my faith has really been important to me,” Helmerich says. “It is so important to be grounded in things: it’s that old silly adage, ‘You have to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.’ You really have to stand for something and really believe in it heart, soul and mind.”