Pediatrician, orchestra founder Francis Helfrick dies

By Ed Jacovino
Journal Inquirer
Published: Thursday, December 31, 2009 10:06 PM EST

MANCHESTER — When Dr. Francis Helfrick dug an old plant out of the trash bin at The Arbors retirement community five years ago, it was known as “the stick.”

But the plant blossomed into an orchid, and the long-time local pediatrician, whose living-room concerts had given birth to the Manchester Symphony Orchestra, won a blue ribbon from the Connecticut Orchid Society that year.

“Who knew that he could somehow nurture that thing back to health and it would end up so beautiful?” asks Helfrick’s daughter, Christina Baldwin of Manchester. “He really had that nurturing spirit about him all the time.”

Helfrick died Dec. 13 at age 95. Family and friends remember him as a caring doctor with a passion for learning. He loved music, flowers, and nature.

Helfrick was born in January 1914 on a farm in Belleville, Pa. He attended Johns Hopkins University, became a pediatrician, and later moved to Manchester, where he ran his own practice for 40 years. Helfrick moved to The Arbors in 1999 and lived there until his death.

For Baldwin, one of Helfrick’s signature achievements was founding the group that is now the Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale.

“The symphony orchestra started in his living room,” she says.

A small group of doctors would come to the house and play music when she was a child, Baldwin remembers. When they decided to hire a conductor and expand, a newspaper headline read something like, “Pediatrician gives birth to orchestra,” she says.

Needed: Professional guidance

Helfrick told the story in his own words in a September interview:

“There were a group of us, mostly physicians, who met in our living room periodically to play some music, and we soon found that we weren’t getting anywhere and we needed some kind of professional guidance.”

They hired John Gruber, then the music critic for the Manchester Herald.

The group changed names from the Civic Orchestra to the Symphony Orchestra. It later added a chorus and is now called the Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale.

Linda Cromwell, president of the group’s Board of Directors, is also a first soprano. “Several doctors got together and decided they wanted to do something for fun, and 50 years later we have a chorale and orchestra under the same roof,” she says.

Helfrick said in the interview that he was looking forward to attending a gala in June celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary.

Family and colleagues also remember him as a man who never stopped learning.

“He was thrilled to go to medical school,” Baldwin says. “He was in his element. He loved learning.”

First well-trained pediatrician

Dr. Bud Moyer, a fellow pediatrician, remembers that Helfrick “was the first well-trained pediatrician to come to town.

“We all worked together through the years,” Moyer adds.

The four or five local pediatricians all knew each other from making rounds at Manchester Memorial Hospital. They took turns as chief of pediatrics at the hospital. Helfrick was the first.

“He led the way,” Moyer says.

The small group of colleagues would meet every Monday. They would report to each other on studies published in medical journals.

Helfrick’s commitment to learning continued after retirement. While at The Arbors, he ordered videos of lectures and screened them to a small club in the community’s activity room.

Marilyn Wilson was a member of the group. “He liked to talk often about rather abstract things,” Wilson remembers. Helfrick picked subjects like “the nature of consciousness” and “early Greek philosophers,” she says.

He often read long, philosophical writings. As he got older, Helfrick spent more time listening to music, Wilson says. Beethoven was his favorite. The orchestra’s first performance was Beethoven’s first symphony.

Nature lover

Helfrick was also known for his love of nature. He enjoyed canoeing and cross-country skiing. His photographs tended to focus on flowers. Orchids were his favorite.

For his daughter Dorothy Helfrick of East Hartford, one important part of his life was working as a doctor in Puerto Rico. Helfrick was a Quaker, and instead of fighting in World War II, he was placed in the small village of Castañer, Puerto Rico, she says.

He and other doctors set up a clinic there. It has since grown into a small hospital, and the village grew into a small town, she says.

In 1943, Helfrick married Sylvia Merrill. They remained married until her death in 1994. He later married Marjorie (Allen) Gerstung. They lived at The Arbors until their deaths.

Helfrick leaves his six children, 12 grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.

A Celebration of Life service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 2, at the Friends Meeting House, 144 S. Quaker Lane, West Hartford.

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