Renowned local surgeon Crampton Helms dies at age 88

Dr. Crampton Helms with his trademark fedora and Chevy Suburban. Helms died Thursday morning at age 88.

He was a renaissance man, known for driving his old diesel suburban around town, adorned in a fedora and sneaking away from his medical practice to mow his lawn in a suit and tie.

Thursday morning, Dr. Crampton Helms died at his old childhood home at the age of 88, surrounded by his family, in the same room he spent the first nine years of his life.

Dr. Helms’ private practice spanned decades in Morristown, from 1963-2014. He was in practice as a general surgeon in 2004.

Generations of former patients would approach his family when they were out in town, informing them of their father’s prowess with a needle. With three boys at home, it was a skill in which Helms got plenty of practice.

“I don’t know how many times he sewed our wounds up,” Crampton Helms II, Dr. Helms’ oldest son said. “People would stop us and say, ‘Your daddy sewed my wife’s head back on.’”

A native of Morristown, Helms graduated Morristown High School in 1949 before going to Yale. Leaving there with a degree in 1954, he had his sights set on McGill Medical School in Montreal, Canada. Only, according to the story, McGill didn’t share the infatuation.

As John M. Jones Jr., former editor of the Greeneville Sun, tells it, Helms was turned down when he applied. Undeterred, he requested a personal interview with the university and that got him accepted.

“Knowing Crampton, that didn’t surprise me,” Jones said, a lifelong friend and second cousin. “I think it’s probably true. He was an unusual person of great determination on things that mattered to him.”

That determination would pay lifelong dividends for Dr. Helms, as he not only completed medical school but it was there he met his wife Ruth, who was studying nursing at McGill. They met in Helms’ first week at the school and were married three years later. Together they had three sons, Crampton II, Thomas and Patrick.

And it was with those boys where Crampton had many adventures, some even getting the attention of the United States Air Force.

According to the boys, Dr. Helms built his own refractor observatory in their back yard. Large, cylindrical, silver with a dome on the top, Crampton suddenly found his astronomical hobby had garnered the attention of the local military. At least, that’s the yarn he would tell.

“He built a refracting observatory in the back yard,” Thomas said. “He invented a device to measure double stars distances. They sent air force planes over (the backyard) to see what kind of missile silo it was. They were buzzing around trying to figure out what this silver thing was.”

“It was an observatory with a dome on the top,” Crampton II added. “I guess it did kind of look like a missile silo.”

“It was the story he told, anyway,” Thomas said. “It was a good one, though. He was a great storyteller.”

It was that ability to craft a tale and the interest in his own family history that made him take on the role of genealogist. It culminated in a book, “Echoes from the Valley,” still available on Amazon.com.

Writing was one of just many interests for Helms, who played piano, concertina and harmonica, wrote his own music and poetry and cataloged stars for the Webb Deep-Sky society.

When Dr. Helms returned to Morristown in 1963 after his residency at Bowman Gray Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., it wasn’t supposed to be permanent. He planned on taking another of the many job offers he’d received, including one to teach at Tulane University. Then, according to Crampton II, he saw his old childhood home up for sale.

“He took that as a sign from God and NASCAR that we needed to stay in Morristown,” Crampton II said.

And that he did, spending the rest of his life inside that home with his family, one that eventually grew adding daughters in law, four grandchildren and five step grandchildren.

At his practice, a converted house on Evans Ave., Dr. Helms could be routinely heard singing to his patients. But while his healing abilities were exceptional, his office management skills left a lot to be desired according to Ruth.

“When I was at the office, I’d go in as a secretary and a nurse,” Ruth said. “I was his entire staff. And he’d come out with the patient and say, there’s no charge for this gentleman today. I told him after a few months that he was not to come out to the desk anymore.”

A renowned surgeon, Helms was asked to travel to China with People to People International in 1986 as part of a surgical team of 23 doctors led by Harvard’s Johnson and Johnson Chair and chief surgeon at Beth Israel William Silen.

“China was just beginning to open up,” Ruth said. “These 23 surgeons and their spouses went to China and were guests of the medical society there in Beijing. …The surgeons went to all the Chinese hospitals and did surgeries with the doctors there in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and then on to Hong Kong. Each surgeon did his own specialty.”

Dr. Helms was a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, an elected member of the Southeastern Surgical Congress and a dedicated Mason and member of Morristown Lodge No. 231. His life, humor, intellect and talent will continue to impact the Lakeway Community in those that knew him and called him family or friend.

“He (Helms) was a person of natural brilliance, who had many interests,” Jones, said. “He was a man who loved his family, had a strong Christian faith, a strong Mason and a deeply devoted doctor. He was much admired and much appreciated. But above all, I feel that Crampton Helms was loved by family, by friends and patients.”