Longtime operator John Helm celebrated for 50 years in Seattle transit

VIDEO: Operator honored for 50 years in Seattle transit

SEATTLE — On this day in 1968, John Helm’s service in Vietnam had ended. March 7 marked the beginning of a 50-year occupation in Seattle transit.

On March 7, 50 years later, a group of Helm’s loved ones and colleagues gathered in a window-lit room with colored balloons, food and treats, to recognize Helm’s long tenure.

“We’ve been so lucky to have John here,” Hollie Alejandria, rail operations chief, said. “He’s one of those people that’s really great to work with. … John is very friendly and open. … Calm and driven.”

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“I asked … why I lasted this long. Is it because I’m a little crazy? Or stupid? She says, ‘How about stubborn, too,’” Helm said, starting laughter in the room.

“Second that,” a man yelled, amused.

“I’m here, 50 years, because I like who I work with,” Helm said, and added, “I had a good support group.”

Helm noted gratitude for his family, friends, a grandson.

Helm spent 40 years driving a bus in the Seattle area. Then, in November of 2008, he tried something new.

“What little boy doesn’t want to be a train engineer?” Helm asked. “It just was a dream come true.”

He was among the very first class of light rail operators in our region.

A round of applause moved through the room as Helm was presented with special plaques.

“Fifty years,” Terry White, soon-to-be deputy general manager said. “There’s another ingredient in 50 years. Got to be love, right? Got to be love.”

“It’s amazing to me,” said White. “I can’t imagine how many thousands of lives you’ve changed.”

Helm shrugged, raising his eyebrows in thought.

Helm was asked how he navigated difficulties as they arose throughout the many years.

“My dad told me, ‘When you’re having a problem, let it go off the back like water off the back of a duck,’” Helm said.

And about where he thought his big heart came from: “I don’t know. I probably inherited that from my mom and dad.”

Helm’s parents were farmers in Kansas with big families, and they had to learn to give and take, how to contribute and how to cooperate, he said.

Asked if he plans to end his transit service soon, Helm said, “I’m gonna go for more.”

“When I’m tired of it, I’ll quit.”

Until then, Seattle celebrates his lengthy term at the helm.

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