A stalwart oak of a man in both stature and principle, Harold “Hal” Vincent Helsley died April 11, 2018, of leukemia, three days before his and wife Nancy’s 56th wedding anniversary. He was 81.
Widely known in Los Angeles County for his community activism, public service, and positive out-look on life, Hal’s favorite motto was, “If you don’t make a difference, think about who will!”
Helsley served on numerous L.A. County committees that shaped the use of the Santa Monica Mountains, including the Los Angeles County’s Scenic Corridor Committee, and the North Area Plan. He was a part of those who came together to form the City of Calabasas.
His family says his lifetime commitment to community service was due to the work experience he and his brother gained during their childhood on their family 17-acre lemon and avocado ranch during the cash-poor war years in Vista, California, that developed Hal’s practical hands-on knowledge and application of science.
He proudly taught school for 47 years for Los Angeles Unified School District and received numerous teaching awards. Working with middle school kids was his love and the day-to-day shaping of skills useful in careers and life was hugely effective with them. He often said that he “played all day” as a school teacher.
A celebration of Helsley’s life took place on June 9 at Peter Strauss Ranch, in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, where his son, Thomas, addressed approximately 100 guests: “Teaching was part of my father’s heartbeat. He rolled up his sleeves and went to work with his kids,” he said. “He would teach me by asking me questions and letting me come up with the answers. He knew I’d make mistakes but would eventually get it right.”
Affable, and broadly knowledgeable on many levels, Helsley loved to work with people to achieve solutions to community problems. For 20 years, he served on the Board of Directors of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District (LVMWD ), lobbying strongly for the use of progressive water treatment science and cost-effective policies.
In 2000, then Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy appointed Helsley to the L.A. County Regional Planning Commission where he served for 13 years
“I rarely disagreed with any decision he made, and I never had to worry that he would make a decision that would go against our shared objectives of protecting the beauty of our county,” Yaroslavsky said. “Hal protected the Santa Monica Mountains and many other areas as though he was protecting his own first born. What a legacy he has left us!”
Known for setting county standards for oak tree removal and mitigation, Helsley recommended planting acorns by the dozen, rather than single oak trees, as mitigation for new development because, he said, “an acorn develops more quickly and sturdily than boxed-up trees.”
In his honor, the Harold V. Helsley Memorial Oak Grove for Habitat Restoration will be planted at King Gillette Ranch as a “haven of peace in our busy world [for] visitors to contemplate the beauty of this glorious landscape and nature so close to the city.”
Helsley is survived by his wife, Nancy; sons Thomas and twins Andrew and Matthew; daughters-in-law Juley and Ishani; grandchildren Jayden and Mackenzie; brother Charles and sister-in-law Barbara; sister-in-law Virginia Coulon; niece Heather; nephews Ryan and Paul; five cousins and their families.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Mountains Restoration Trust/Cold Creek Docent Program (mountainstrust.org); UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science (giving.ucla.edu/Standard/NetDonate.aspx?SiteNum=622); the Santa Monica Mountains Fund (:samofund.org) toward an oak grove at King Gillette Ranch in Hal’s honor; or a charity of the donor’s choice.