By his own admission, Edward Wayne “Butch” Helmly was a tough coach.
“I could be pretty hard (on players),” he said.
But even he was moved when news of his retirement after 35 years of teaching and coaching – most of it at St. Johns County high schools – spread via Facebook. After his daughter, Rochele, launched a Facebook group called “Coach Helmly is Retiring,” the group soon attracted nearly 400 members, many of whom wrote moving tributes about the impact Helmly had on their lives.
“I was very emotional,” said Helmly, who recently retired from his position as dean of students at Creekside High School. “That’s what I tried to do for the past 35 years is make a difference in kids’ lives – to teach them the dedication, hard work and commitment needed to succeed in life.”
Those sentiments were echoed on Facebook by numerous individuals impacted by Helmly.
“Thank you so much for the time and effort you took to teach me to be not only physically tough but mentally as well,” Tony Richburg wrote. “ … I just want to say thank you and yes, sir, you were right to say you made me... Because without you the game may have been over long ago.”
W. Todd Johnson wrote, “I have forgotten a few things over the years, but one thing I have not forgotten was my time with Coach Helmly. You, sir, are what every young man needs in their life. I am grateful to have played for you. I hope that I made you proud because that’s what we all wanted.”
A lifetime of dedication
A lifelong sports enthusiast, Helmly was 13 when his family moved to Palm Valley. At the time, the area was so rural and swampy, he said, that when he later went to Fletcher High School classmates would joke that he needed a canoe to get home from school.
He began his teaching and coaching career in 1981, when he was among the first staff at the newly opened Nease High School. Helmly coached numerous sports at Nease for 13 years before accepting an offer to serve as head football coach at Interlachen High School. For six years, Helmly made the 67-mile drive from Palm Valley to Interlachen, sometimes sleeping in the team’s field house if he had to be back early the next morning.
In 2000, he returned to St. Johns County to teach at the newly opened Pedro Menendez High School, where he served as defensive football coach and girls’ softball coach. Two of his children transferred from Nease to Pedro Menendez in order to be coached by their father.
“People assume that you’re going to get special treatment if your Dad is the coach, so if anything you have to work twice as hard,” said Rochele Helmly, who played on the girls’ softball team. “My Dad always wanted to push you and get you to give that 100 percent.”
Integrity and respect were also cornerstones of Helmly’s approach.
“Ninety-five percent of kids won’t go to college on an athletic scholarship,” Coach Helmly said, “so I always stressed academics were important, along with integrity and respect. That made the kids be winners.”
One tangible sign of that respect, Rochele Helmly recalled, was her father’s rule requiring team members to wear ties on game days.
“He had a bag in his office full of just the most awful-looking ties,” she laughed, “and if a player forgot to wear a tie, they had to go to his office and get one of these ridiculous ties!”
In 2008, Helmly opened yet another high school, joining the staff at the new Creekside High School as dean of students, assistant football coach and head track coach. He will continue to coach track in retirement while enjoying more time to hunt, fish and work on the home he and his wife recently bought in Jacksonville.
In the meantime, he has enjoyed connecting with students both on Facebook and through letters from former students thanking him for the lessons he imparted to them.
“It makes me feel good to know I made an impact, because my athletes are basically my children, too,” he said. “I just want to thank all the families for giving me the opportunity to coach their kids and for 35 years of being able to do that.”