Dennis "Denny" Helmuth ’78
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 74, No. 3, Spring 2003
When he's not coaching chess, taking care of his two children, or going to work as the only full-time psychiatrist in his Ohio county, Denny Helmuth '78 can be seen flying above the trees, piloting his hot-air balloon. After a 1990 pleasure ride with his wife Kathy, Denny got his private license in 1991 and then his commercial license in 1993. "I've had some interesting adventures," he says modestly. Among his highest is winning the 2000 Longjump flight for the Balloon Federation of America. In this wintertime competition, balloonists see who can fly the farthest with a fuel limit of 40 gallons. Denny won his class when he flew from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Columbus, Ohio on 36 gallons.
Although he doesn't use his commercial license to charge passengers, sometimes Denny gives rides away at charity auctions or to friends. "Once people find out I have a balloon, things like that come up a lot," he laughs. The most challenging aspect of ballooning, however, isn't rationing rides or even the actual flying, but launching and landing safely. "Just the other day my balloon blew into a tree after I landed," he explains. "I'll be making a trip to the repair station this weekend to fix the twentyfive inch tear."
Denny's most "hair-raising experience" occurred in 1996 after a launch from his hometown of Wooster, Ohio took him 140 miles into Northwest Pennsylvania. "There was nothing but forest as far as the eye could see," he says. With twelve minutes of fuel left, he radioed down to the chase crew and told them that he would inevitably be on the ground soon. Luckily, with five minutes to go, he spotted a fallen tree that had created a small clearing in which he was able to land. "But that was only half the adventure," he says. He was still in the middle of the forest, and "it was a snowy day and it started to get dark." Denny walked for eight miles out of the woods and found a dirt road where the Pennsylvania state police connected him with his chase crew. The next day, a local farmer took them on a tractor into the forest where they were able to load the balloon and basket on his trailer. "My wife wasn't very happy that I had messed up our social plans for the weekend, but when she heard of the dire circumstances she retracted her annoyance," he laughs.
Denny's interest in unusual activities dates back to his college days. He and his friends set up a Frisbee golf course around campus, he played JV Tennis, was a DJ for WBOR, majored in mathematics, and took courses in environmental science, French, and cinema. He also graduated magna cum laude. "Bowdoin was a good choice for me," he says. He came to Bowdoin because his high school math teacher had recommended it." After graduation, Denny received both his Ph.D. in biostatistics and his MD at Case Western Reserve. He finished school at the age of 29, completed a four-year psychiatry residency and "entered real life" when he was 33. He is board certified in general, adolescent, and addiction psychiatry and practices in his rural town. This area of Ohio is also home to a large Amish community, people that make up about 20% of Denny's patients. With a father whose family came from an Amish background, Denny adds that he has enjoyed "getting to know the Amish culture."
His practice, his involvement with his children's activities, and his hot-air ballooning are all manifestations of Denny's larger goal of giving back to the community. He wants to help out in any way he can. As far as Bowdoin, he comments, "The older I get, the more I appreciate the liberal arts education I received at Bowdoin. I'm the kind of person who is into a lot of different things. It's the way my mind works. Bowdoin encouraged that kind of development."