A City College of New York sociology professor best known for walking nearly every block in the Big Apple died of coronavirus– just shy of completing his ambitious goal.
William Helmreich, 74, passed away Saturday morning at his home in Great Neck, his son Jeffrey Helmreich told The New York Times.
His symptoms seemed to be improving when he died suddenly, Jeffrey told CNN.
“We weren’t ready for this at all,” he said. “We didn’t say goodbye. We didn’t think we had to say goodbye.”
In a letter posted to the CCNY website, president Vince Boudreau called Helmreich a “foundational member” of the school’s sociology department, who began his career there “before the great changes our institution underwent in the 1970.”
“Willy—as everyone knew him—was an expansive writer and analyst, covering topics as varied as immigration, life inside yeshivas and the formation of stereotypes,” Boudreau wrote. “He will, however, almost certainly be most fondly remembered for a joyful series of recent books, chronicling his efforts to walk all the streets of New York, and report on what he saw and heard.”
Helmreich wrote nearly 20 books, including “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City,” where he shared his conversations with New Yorkers he met on the journey, of all backgrounds and walks of life.
He also wrote spinoff volumes highlighting each of the five boroughs — but was not completely done with his objective at the time of his death.
“He was just about to finish Staten Island,” Jeffrey told CNN. “We’ve still got to finish that one.”
“He believed that everybody had a story worth telling,” added Jeffrey, an assistant professor of philosophy and law at the University of California at Irvine. “Every place and every person was interesting to my father. And every person felt interesting when talking to my father.”
The family held a virtual funeral, with few guests, according to CNN. The family could not sit shiva, the Jewish custom of mourning together at home.
Besides his son Jeffrey, Helmreich is survived by his wife, Helaine Helmreich, a speech therapist who also wrote the 2003 novel “The Chimney Tree”; another son, Joseph, a writer; a daughter, Deborah Halpern, a speech pathologist; and four grandchildren, according to the Times. His third son, Alan, died in 1998 of a brain aneurysm at only 24.
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., told the Times Helmreich “was in the wrong profession for the coronavirus.”
“Willie loved talking to people,” he said. “Social distancing was not in his nature.”
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