Nicholas Helburn (1918 - 2011)


Nicholas Helburn, geography professor and activist, died of natural causes on Saturday, June 11, 2011, at his home in Boulder, Colo. He was born on Dec. 20, 1918, in Salem, Mass., to Willard and Margaret Helburn, and grew up in Cambridge.

He attended Shady Hill Elementary School and graduated from Cambridge High and Latin. He enrolled at Harvard University, but left after one year to spend a year working in the New Hampshire mountains. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago and received an M.S. in Agricultural Economics at Montana State University. After World War II he earned his Ph.D. in geography from the University of Wisconsin.

During the war Nick was a conscientious objector whose alternative service was building bridges in Tennessee and working as a "smoke jumper" in Montana.

Nick was an avid educator, mentor, outdoorsman, traveler, gardener, ecologist, peace activist and advocate for alternative lifestyles. At the beginning of his career he moved with his first wife, Tess Loth Helburn, to Bozeman to start the department of earth sciences at Montana State College. Nick, Tess and their sons, Steve and Peter, lived in Bozeman for 17 years. Nick and Tess built a house designed by modernist architect Richard Neutra that is now registered as a historic building.

Nick spent a year in Turkey in 1951 on a Ford Foundation grant, and the research from this time resulted in a book about dry land agriculture and village culture in Anatolia.

Nick moved to Boulder, Colo., in 1965 to direct the High School Geography Project, one of the "New Social Studies" curriculum projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation to develop a new approach for teaching geography in high schools.

He became the first director of the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) for Social Studies. He joined the geography department at the University of Colorado in 1971 and chaired the department for three years. He was also elected president of the Association of American Geographers.

During its formative years he served on the senior faculty of the University of Phoenix that was developing a unique college curriculum for working adults.

Nick and his second wife, Suzanne Wiggins Helburn, married in 1969. They bought a piece of land in Longmont, Colo., with a group of people in 1971 and started an intentional community there. For 34 years Nick and Suzanne devoted themselves to organic gardening and an experimental and socially conscious lifestyle at the "farm" on Nelson Road. They moved back into Boulder in 2005.

A lifelong advocate for social justice and nonviolence, Nick was a member of the Boulder Friends Meeting and was a long-time member of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. In 2002 the Peace and Justice Center recognized him as "Peacemaker of the Year."

His friends and family have always admired him for his broad intelligence, quiet humor, enjoyment of all the wonders of life, and his graceful and judicious disposition.

Nick's survivors include his wife, Suzanne Helburn; son, Steve Helburn and daughter-in-law, Benjaporn Helburn; son, Peter Helburn; stepdaughter, Sherry Wiggins and son-in-law, Jim Logan; grandchildren, Wendy Helburn Mather, Nathan Helburn, Joseph Logan, Michael Logan, Brian Logan and Dana Logan.

Private services for the immediate family will be held later this summer.

Donations may be made to the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, P.O. Box 1156, Boulder, CO 80306; phone (303) 444-6981; fax (720) 565-9755; email

Please share thoughts, memories and condolences at

M.P. Murphy & Associates Funeral Directors of Boulder is handling arrangements.
Published in Bozeman Daily Chronicle on June 19, 2011
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