Ask any of the 4,000 seasonal employees at Carowinds theme park to point out Jerry Helms, the park’s vice-president of operations, and they’ll tell you he’s the one walking the grounds among guests, picking up litter, returning lost items to the front desk.
He’s the one with the smile, the one who knows everyone by their first name, who ends conversations with a fist-bump.
The Lake Wylie resident, also known as “Uncle Jerry,” to the staff, is also one of the longest-running employees at the park, having worked at the park since 1973, the second year it opened.
He first walked onto the property as a college student looking for a part-time job as a security guard.
In a comedy of errors, Helms found himself lost in a back parking lot, unsure of how to get to the office. As fate would have it, a black Lincoln Continental pulled up, and the man inside in the car showed him the way.
The man in the car turned out to be Carowinds’ original owner, E. Pat Hall, the man who thought of the idea to build a massive theme park in Charlotte straddling North and South Carolina.
In those days, whoever Hall brought in personally was hired on the spot.
“I just got lucky,” Helms said.
His streak of luck was hardly over. It was at Carowinds where Helms met and fell in love with a woman named Irene who was hired as a “balloon girl” to sell balloons to guests for 10 cents each.
“When I first saw her, I couldn’t even speak,” Helms remembers.
At the end of the park’s season, Jerry planned to return to graduate school. He asked Irene out instead. They married in 1977 and he remains as enamored with her as the day he first asked her out on the park grounds.
“That’s what Carowinds is—those special memories,” Helms said.
Over the next 43 years, Helms worked in every department at the park, continuously proving that Hall picked the right man for the job.
Now running the day-to-day operations of the 398-acre park, Helms walks 7 to 8 miles on the grounds every day talking to each of the employees and thinking of ways to improve the park experience.
His love for the place is infectious. He’s coached the staff to provide outstanding customer service, trains employees on leadership, and serves as a role model.
“I tell them: where else can you go to get paid and also have the best day ever?” Helms said.
Helms can recall the park’s past and history in great detail. He smiles while flipping through a scrapbook of archived newspaper clippings about notable musical acts, comedians, attractions and rides.
He can recall performances from Steve Martin, Jimmy Buffet, Bob Hope, James Taylor, Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers at the park’s Paladium.
In a fitting tribute to the man who dedicated his life to the theme park, employees unveiled a new name on the entrance to the Carolina Gold Rusher roller coaster: The J.R. Helms Mining Company. It was a humbling moment and a complete surprise, he said. Irene rode the roller coaster with him that day.
Despite more than 40 years working in the business, Helms is still energized by the park.
He points out that airplanes flying into the Charlotte Douglas International Airport get a marvelous view of the Fury325, the world’s largest Giga coaster.
“Pilots tilt the airplanes so passengers can see it,” he said.
This season, Carowinds will unveil the Carolina Harbor waterpark, the largest waterpark in the Carolinas.
Helms is constantly looking for ways to improve the park experience and the community.
He’s led a “Pennies for Progress” tax program to improve York County roads. The program built six lanes on Highway 77 to accommodate the cars traveling the area. He continues to work with elected officials both locally and in the statehouse for more road improvements and safety across all counties.
Helms doesn’t divulge any secrets about the park’s five-year master plan, but says with a smile, “I know what’s coming. If you think the park is something now, just wait.”