Interview with Dave Helgager – President, Humanists of Sarasota Bay

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dave Helgager is the President of the Humanists of Sarasota Bay. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Dave Helgager: I was born and reared in the midwestern town of Hurley, SD., population 400 and predominately an agricultural community. I grew up Lutheran.

My mother was very religious, but my Dad never really exhibited much spirituality though he attended church faithfully with our family. I was very active in my church and in high school served as president of the Luther League.

My mother was very much the driving force for the family and church. I worked with my father in his grocery store until I left for college. We never discussed religion or politics much.

In fact, I lived a very apolitical life. I graduated in 1963 with a BA in English and history from the Scandinavian run Augustana University, Sioux Falls, SD with a minor in education and Christianity.

I started my career teaching English and history but ultimately in 1980 when we moved to Sarasota, FL, moved into financial planning and investing, and advising.

After moving to Springfield, Il, in 1968, I began to become disillusioned with religion and all its related trappings. We asked the pastor of our Lutheran church if we could put on a discussion about feminism and were rejected.

At that point, my wife and I began to look around for a church that met our needs. We ended up in the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Springfield which I mark as my beginning of moving toward Humanism.

In 1973, we moved to Charleston, WV where we were active in the UU Church. There I was given a copy of the American Humanist Association’s magazine and it really helped moved me even more away from Christianity and toward the tenets of the Unitarian group.

My transition to a fully Humanist lifestyle began in 1980 when we moved to Sarasota, FL. There my wife and I joined the UU Church of Sarasota, but I gradually became less interested in the UU “way” with its hymns, sermons, etc.

In early 2000, I found out about the Humanists of Sarasota Bay which was a newly formed organization founded in 1999. I left the UU Church of Sarasota when the new minister walked into the sanctuary in robes and the words like prayer began to surface.

Ultimately, my wife and I became fully involved with the Humanists of Sarasota Bay, and I served on the Board for a number of years before becoming president.

I have a brother who converted to Catholicism and a brother who is an atheist. Overall, I had a very good life in the small town and enjoyed my relatives, many who lived around me. I remember that my grandfather had very little use for church and never went.

My wife, who is a social worker, influence me tremendously in regards to social issues, though I was further “educated” thanks to the American Humanist Association.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Helgager: Earning my degree and completing some graduate work. I have always read several newspapers, magazines and kept up with current developments in Humanism.

I would say that my knowledge of Humanism is pretty much self-taught though I attend workshops in Florida and attend national conferences when I can.

Jacobsen: As the President of the Humanists of Sarasota Bay, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Helgager: I lead the Board who along with me develop our programs and policies. I oversee lectures during the year, including our Darwin Day Celebration.

Make sure our weekly luncheons and workshops run smoothly as well. We also have a scholarship program which I implemented a few years ago.

I give presentations as requested, write letters to the editor and serve as the face of Humanism in Sarasota. Our website, husbay.org is a good source of our activities. I am proud of the fact that under my leadership the organization has grown from seven to 136 in about 7 years.

Jacobsen: If we look at the ways in which humanism slowly formed over time in Sarasota Bay, how did it get its start? How were the Humanists of Sarasota Bay?

Helgager: In 1999, a group of seven Humanists developed our bylaws and established the organization. Since then it has grown to 136 members. 

Jacobsen: What are the usual and unusual topics discussed on the 4th Wednesday of each month in the Current Affairs Discussion Group?

Helgager: Current politics in general. Members generate topics and a leader runs the discussion.  The members pretty much address the present day issues in our country.

Jacobsen: For those active religious fundamentalist propagandists, what do they think or assert the Founding Fathers of America stated? What did the Founding Fathers, in fact, really say in contradistinction to the aforementioned assertions?

Helgager: The fundamentalists assert that we are Christian nation. In fact, our Founding Fathers strongly support separation of church and state.

Jacobsen: What are some of the relevant and important activist efforts of the Humanists of Sarasota Bay, in the past or as we move into 2019?

Helgager: Our organization is composed of retirees and probably has an average age of 80. I am considered a young member in my seventy’s. As a result, we have to be creative with our activism.  

Since we are very well funded, we give out a scholarship of $2000 to a deserving Humanist/atheist college student and donate to various organizations such as the local food bank.

We have a cleanup project at one of our parks. Our members join protests in the local community and contribute time at various community organizations.

Our members are more interested in lectures, luncheon meetings and doing things that allow them to be with like minded people. A survey of our organization indicated that the reason for joining us is to meet with like minded people.

Jacobsen: For students with a secular orientation and a humanistic set of values, how can scholarship funds become an important support for their educational endeavors?

How can this show goodwill and support for the next generations on the part of the humanist communities?

Helgager: These students need our financial support. It’s something our members can do with a minimum amount of effort. We support the Secular Student Alliance with this scholarship. They realize the older generation is with them.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved with the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Helgager: Find or form a local or state Humanist organization. Join the American Humanist Association.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Helgager: I am a Humanist/atheist. I believe strongly that we need the separation of church and state in the USA and our membership is very focused on that issue.

In addition, I like to think of equal rights as the overriding goal as it does encompass everything from feminism to racism to separation of church and state.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dave.

Helgager: Happy to do it, Scott.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Vincent Riszdorfer on Unsplash

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