A coach who used kindness and listening to bring out the best in his athletes while filling White Bear Lake High School trophy cases, Lyle Helke was known for early adoption of sports psychology and for steadfast support of girls' and women's sports before they were widely offered.
A longtime fixture at White Bear Lake High School where he had been the chemical dependency counselor for many years before retiring in 2007, Helke died Aug. 1 from complications of a heart attack. He was 73.
"He was a sweetheart," said Gary Wilson, the former University of Minnesota women's cross country and track coach. "He wasn't one of those people that was a self-promoter. He just cared about people." Helke was there in the 1970s when cross country teams for girls were just forming at Minnesota high schools. Some officials thought girls should be running short distances, or not at all. Helke was among a core group pushing for equal opportunities, said Wilson. "It was a struggle because not everybody was on board," said Wilson. "They treated high school girls like they're fragile, and they're not."
Helke led the Bears to 18 state meets in 33 years.
At weekly team meetings he handed out a two-or-three-page packet of quotes, stories and tips to help guide his athletes' training – things that would connect running to larger lessons in life, said colleague Patti Percival, who took over the program after Helke retired.
"He always validated your worth or who you were as a person," said Percival. "He did that for everybody."
Helke was born in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., to Virginia and Martin Helke. He ran track and field at Lincoln High School and Valparaiso University. He taught in La Crosse, Wis. and met his his future wife, Connie – a potter and ceramics artist, which explains the move to the St. Croix Valley and its arts scene.
Marta Wilson, the 1977 state cross country champion, got to know Helke through cross country running circles, and later coached with him as his assistant. The program he built was "all the good things about sport," including discipline and a positive way to be involved with the school and peers, she said. "He was into sports psychology when it was not common for coaches to do that," she said, teaching his runners the mantra "I am, I can, I will." The lessons resonated and led to the 1977 state championship for the White Bear Mariner Dolphins.
After retirement, Helke sold indoor rock-climbing equipment, a lifelong passion he shared with his sons Josh and Michael.
"One of the most incredible things about my dad is that he was just completely ever-present," said Michael Helke, a ceramics professor at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. "He always gave you 100% of his attention."
Lyle Helke liked to collect antiques and refurbish furniture. He traveled across Wisconsin collecting barn wood to build a two-story pottery studio for Connie in their backyard.
He didn't like to sit still, said his son Josh. "He meditated through moving his body," Josh said, whether cutting down buckthorn or chopping wood, a work ethic he learned at a young age on his grandfather's farm.
Josh and his brother attended Stillwater High School, but when their mother had pottery sales out of her studio, crowds would come and the sons would hear stories about their dad's coaching, or the influence he had on someone's life. "It was a special time," said Josh, who runs a rock climbing and outdoor products business in Pennsylvania.
"When I do bike races I still have dad's voice in my head telling me to rest and take advantage of this downhill," said Josh.
Helke is survived by his wife, son Michael, daughter-in-law Sarah Millfelt, son Josh and daughter in law Liz Hajek, and grandchildren Adela, Theo, Kaspar and Vincent.
A memorial service is being planned with Bradshaw in Stillwater.