August 22, 2019

Setting Sail on New Adventures

Lester Helmus. Photo by Erin Ben-Moche

Lester Helmus, 90

Lester Helmus never stands still. He’s either strolling through his apartment complex in Koreatown, overseeing a boat club, studying Torah with Downtown L.A. Chabad, holding meetings to make his community stronger or exercising. 

Helmus was a chemical engineer and spent three years in the Navy during the Korean War. He also taught junior and high school chemistry and math and sailed around the world five summers in a row. “I couldn’t stand sitting at a desk,” he said. “I needed to move around.”

Helmus said his need for different projects stems from the fact that he moved constantly as a child.  

During the Great Depression, his father abandoned him and his two brothers while his mother was seriously ill. At first, he lived with his grandmother but eventually was sent to the first Jewish orphanage in Philadelphia. 

“It was very hard,” Helmus said. “I lost all my self-esteem. I didn’t realize that until much later in life.” 

Helmus went on to study engineering at Drexel University, where the dean took him under his wing. “I loved the man,” Helmus said. “He was like a father. He gave me my self-esteem.”

“I’m gonna outlive Moses.”

The lifelong bachelor said he believes his mother, who passed away when he was a boy, was his guardian angel through it all and the reason he believes in God today. 

In addition, because Drexel had such an impact on his life, Helmus has donated more than $25,000 to the university’s Judaic studies program over the past 10 years, so that he can pay it forward and help other students like him. 

But his greatest love is sailing. Helmus said he was never a golfer or a skier, but after watching boats dock in New Jersey, he knew he should ride the waves to Cape Cod and Bermuda.

“It would have made a great book,” he said, noting that he never got into the habit of journaling or taking pictures, so he hasn’t documented his travels. “I’m not sure who would read it,” he said, “but it would have been a good story.” 

Though his sailing adventures and the workouts that went with it are in the past, Helmus still exercises vigorously to stay in shape. He created his own weight loss and exercise plan called “Cyberdiet” so that others can stay healthy. 

“I’m gonna outlive Moses,” he said.