Loss of one is felt by many

Tug Helmer, gone at 47

The plateau community was hit with a heavy blow last week by the loss of Tug Helmer, who died on July 13 at his home in Highlands. He passed away peacefully in his sleep due to heart failure stemming from a childhood heart condition.

Pictured below is a tribute to Tug Helmer; a loving, kind, generous, supportive, intelligent man who was an amazing human being and basically the best friend a person could possibly have.

Friends describe Tug as loving, supportive, generous, and a gentleman. He had a larger-than-life personality and always spoke his mind freely.

Tug and Kayla at this year’s Highlands Motoring Festival.

His impact on the plateau runs deep and the pain of his loss to those closest to him will be felt for years. Tug’s girlfriend, Kayla Grant, said he was ever the iconic true gentleman, and at the foundation of everything he did was love and humility.

Tug carries Kayla’s daughter, Zayah Elrington, 7, in Belize at the Mayan ruins. Photo courtesy of Kayla Grant

“As lovely as the mountain views in Highlands are, he was breathtaking,” said Grant. “My fears and concerns seemed so small in the light of him. Life was more beautiful because of him. Though our time together was cut short, I’ve been inspired and touched by hearing the many memories and positive impact he has had on so many lives. Tug used to always say he was the lucky one to have found me, but no, it was I who was lucky.”

Tug and Kayla in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of Kayla Grant

Tug is the namesake of Tug’s Proper in Highlands, which he operated alongside Maggie Burd.

Tug bartending at Tug’s Proper. Photo courtesy of Jeanie Edwards-Jones

Burd remembers Tug’s passion for humanity, how he was chivalrous to the point of annoyance, and that everything he did was driven by his love; love for his friends, this town, the outdoors, for stories, for reasons, for lessons, and for conversation.

Tug enjoyed hiking and one of his favorite places to go was Whiteside Mountain. Pictured above is the east face of Whiteside Mountain, the red spec at the left of the frame is Tug, the white spec is Maggie.

She said all who knew Tug felt his love for each of them and it never wavered. He often referred to Maggie as Boss, Lady MacGyver, Momma, Partner, or the smartest person in the world, and could lift your spirits no matter how low you were feeling.

“Tug told me that I made the world go round, his loud, embarrassing, overbearing, gentlemanly confidence in me gave me the confidence I needed when I was unsure,” said Burd. “He gave so many in this world what they needed and when they needed it, and he wanted no credit.”

Tug hiking along the Chattooga River.

Burd said Tug used to tell random people that she had introduced him to the feminist movement and would quote the pay gap, speak of glass ceilings, and how he was making changes, all the while making her cringe as she stood next to him.

“Tug loved with a wild, unabashed abandon that I always admired,” said Burd. “The hours we spent working, especially throughout COVID, were full of laughter, distractions and that obvious, mischievous glimmer in his eye that he used to convince me that we had accomplished enough that day and it was time to go adventure-hunting.”

Lane Leddy has known Tug for many years and said the friendship they had was special, it cannot be put into words or replaced.

Tug holding Lane’s daughter, Mollie, at Town Square in Highlands. Photo courtesy of Lane Leddy

“He affected my life by our friendship that was rare and real, and I feel like I knew the real Tug, the side of someone you see when they truly trust you and can be who they are when they are true to themselves and feel relaxed and genuine,” said Leddy. “When you can say whatever want with zero judgment and nothing is filtered. The laughter we shared was infectious. A friend who would literally give the shirt off his back.”

From left are Lane holding daughter Mollie, Christal, Tug and a friend from out of town. Photo courtesy of Christal Green

Leddy described Tug as a gentleman, a good friend, hilarious, intelligent, kind, of pure heart, and a unique soul.

“I don’t have a specific favorite memory, we had so many, but I think what’s so important about that was, I didn’t see Tug once every blue moon and catch the highlights. I saw the day in day out everyday life,” said Leddy. “I consider myself blessed to know that side of him. But if I had to pick one, I think my most memorable event was when he, Whisper (Christal Green) and I got kicked out of a Highlands basketball game for being loud and obnoxious.”

Tug was well known for being kind, caring, and always a gentleman. Pictured above Tug escorts Ms. Pat out of the Spice & Tea Exchange in Highlands. Photo courtesy of Rachel Price

Another longtime friend of Tug’s, Christal Green, remembers how Tug would call multiple times a day to say the same thing, but also mention he was thinking about her. He would always rub her shoulders no matter where they were and tell people he was her personal masseuse.

Christal and Tug at Sports Page in Highlands. Photo courtesy of Lane Leddy

“He was present in my life, all the time,” said Green. “I will miss his presence. I will miss his accent. I will miss his laughter. I will miss his mannerisms. I will miss our times of grabbing lunch or coffee or him inviting me for lunch and being too ADD to sit down and eat with me. He loved his old jacket he would always wear it in the winter. He loved the mornings. He loved art and he loved to travel and talked about going to Kiev. He loved jokes, he loved clippin’ toenails and telling me and my kids he was gonna tan our hides real good. The word ‘see’ has taken on a form of its own ‘seeeeee, everything was always reeeeeaaalll good’. He always looked for the next big thing and he was getting there slowly but surely.”

She added that in the 15 years she has known Tug, he was rarely feeling down and always did what he could to cheer up others.

“He always uplifted everyone, always had a positive attitude and made this world a better place,” said Green. “I will miss everything about the most unique individual I’ve ever met.”

An average morning screenshot from Christal and Tug. Photo courtesy of Christal Green

Green’s oldest daughter, Chela, said she’s going to miss Tug’s sense of humor and unmatchable personality.

“He really was unlike any person I’ve ever met,” said Chela. “So compassionate and giving. He would give the clothes off his back to anyone without thinking twice. He was a big light in our little town. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that he will never be forgotten. I miss you every day, Tug.”

Chela’s sister Sadie, 13, said Tug had a huge effect on her life. He was always making sure she had good grades and was respectful to her parents and family. Tug referred to her as Sadie poo poo and could always make her laugh after a bad day at school.

Tug in a helicopter flying over the Blue Hole in Belize. Photo courtesy of Kayla Grant

Sadie said she will never forget how thoughtful and caring he was. She remembers sitting outside the coffee shop and seeing Tug randomly driving by. He pulled over and told her he was going to buy her breakfast. After having a muffin, he took her to school.

“Tug will be missed greatly, there’s not a single moment in the day where I don’t think about him, he was so always happy and I never saw him down,” said Sadie. “He would always light up a room when he walked in and he was so uppity and outgoing, and I miss that every day. I love you and miss you Tug.”

Rachel Price has known Tug for years and said they had a complicated relationship that few understood. She never saw eye to eye with him about anything, but their bond was honest, funny, and little twisted.

Rachel and Tug at a Highlands Chamber After Hours unveiling The Literacy & Learning Center’s new facility.

She remembers one day a group of women from Tug’s Proper came in to meet her and say they just met her husband, Tug.  Or when she ran into the coffee shop, and when she came out her car was gone with her son, Hudson, in it.

Tug and Rachel, as usual Tug is sporting his Ray-Ban shades. Photo courtesy of Rachel Price

“As I started to panic, Tug drove by in my car with my windows down and music playing, and Hudson laughing in the back, I was so mad,” said Price. “We always got each other’s sense of humor and laughed till tears were shed more than I can count. Real tears were also shed, he infuriated me! From Politics to relationships, we would go back and forth for hours or days sometimes, but our relationship was never really affected, because he always came back around. He enjoyed the banter and so did I. We knew eachother, and confided in eachother, and helped eachother.”

Tug helping out Hudson with his homework at the Spice & Tea Exchange while Rachel was taking care of customers. Photo courtesy of Rachel Price

Price said Tug would call her each morning and visit her daily at work. He would take her out to lunch if she was having a tough day or bring her a glass of wine from the restaurant if she was working late.

“I miss him,” said Price. “I miss our talks. I miss our banter. I miss his calls. My son misses him. Cheers to you Tug, I have memories of you I won’t forget, and voicemails I’ll always treasure forever. We had an unusual bond, but a very real one at that, and I will always be grateful for our relationship.”

Tug wrestles with Rachel’s son, Hudson. Photo courtesy of Rachel Price

Jeanie Edwards-Jones described meeting Tug for the first time as a whirlwind of pastel colors and manners, the epitome of a southern gentleman. Shortly afterwards, they quickly became close friends.

One of the things she remembers most is when Tug dropped everything he was doing while down in Florida and drove back to Highlands after hearing the news that Jones’ sister has passed away and just showed up at her door.

After the funeral, Jones said she was worried that her sister would be buried without a headstone because it was going to take several weeks to be delivered.

Tug playing with Jeanie’s son, Ransom at her art gallery in Highlands. Photo courtesy of Jeanie Edwards-Jones

In response to this, Tug headed out and found a flat rock, brought it to Jones’ art gallery and sat there with her while she painted a headstone for her sister. Then he took Jones to the Horse Cove Cemetery and helped her lay the marker.

“It was just me and him on a foggy rainy spring morning,” said Jones. “It was one of the most beautiful things. I will never forget that morning. See this is the Tug Helmer that I will miss. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to miss the larger than life ‘what y’all doing see,’ ‘That’s right nice,’ ‘let me beat that young’in,’ ‘have you been dealt with lately,’ ‘I’m right proud of you,” Tug, but more than that I am going to miss the Tug that picked my small human up from school and took him hiking, or to get an ice cream just because he knew I was tired and needed a break, the Tug Helmer that cut my grass because he knew I didn’t have time, the Tug Helmer that wouldn’t take payment for cutting said grass because he knew that I was a single mom and things were tight. The Tug Helmer that wouldn’t let me pay for a meal at the restaurant he was bartending at because he knew I came there not for the food, but to keep him company. The Tug that couldn’t wait to introduce you to his friends so everybody could be friends, that’s what he wanted in life was everybody to be friends.”

Tug Helmer standing on top of Gorilla Head at Whiteside Mountain.

Jones said she and Tug would get into competitions about who knew the most about proper etiquette. One day, they got into a discussion about tipping and what the proper etiquette was when it came to housekeeping staff. They both agreed that if the room was in excellent condition when you arrived, that a tip was appropriate. This led to a discussion about how they were both raised in the south and were taught to leave a room better than they found it.

“That is what Tug Helmer did. He left this room, the world, better than he found it,” said Jones. “I will miss my friend. I will miss our rainy-day golf cart rides around his ‘hood’. I will miss our Robert Redford Out of Africa, All the Presidents Men, and Up Close and Personal movie marathons. I will miss his gregarious smile his quick wit, his quickness to help, and his love. Simply I will miss my friend, and my son will miss his “Uncle Tuggles.”

Tug chatting with Rachel on Main Street in Highlands. Yes, that’s a banana in his pocket. Photo courtesy of Rachel Price

Tug was a regular at Calders Coffee Café, formerly Bucks Coffee, and was often there in the morning spending time with friends or chatting up a table full of strangers. Amber Ginn works at Calders and remembers how positive and supportive he was each day.

“I can say that Tug championed everyone in his life,” said Ginn. “He wanted us all to succeed together. That was his version of success, all of us together. He genuinely loved having the company of his friends and he always wanted you to stay a little bit longer to hang out and catch up. He was kind and generous. He would pay for customers behind him in line at the shop. Every single time he saw me carrying boxes or trash he would pull over, jump out and carry them the rest of the way for me. Even if it took longer. He would constantly ask after members of my family that he had never even met. He just loved his people. No one will ever love us like Tug loved us.”

Tug being Tug. Photo courtesy of Rachel Price

Jesse Hogan also works at Calders and said it’s difficult to nail down what he’ll miss most about his friend Tug.

“He could cheer people up like few people could,” said Hogan. “Because at the end of it, no matter what came out of his mouth, you knew he wanted the best for you. That he wanted you to be happy, that if he meant nothing else, he meant that. He cared. It was who he was. If he could help, he did help. That was Tug. He was a man of the people. You never knew where you’d see him or what he’d be doing. He had spontaneity and spirit of adventure that were all time.

Hogan added that he always enjoyed Tug’s incredible stories.

“Stories I could hear over and over and still laugh hard every time,” said Hogan. “I can’t recreate those stories. I can’t pass them on. They’re not the same from anyone as from him. That’s why I miss my friend. His loss leaves a huge hole in my life and in so many people’s lives. He was truly unique and I’m grateful I got to know Tug as well as I did. He was a true friend.”

Tug in New York City. Photo courtesy of Kayla Grant

Megon Fouts works at Tug’s Proper and said Tug always tried to help no matter what was necessary and was never afraid to get his hands dirty.

“Tuggy to me was one in a million,” said Fouts. “No one will ever fill them damn loafers he always wore, even in the kitchen manning the dish pit early in the mornings, knowing we had a damn dishwasher coming, he still did them. And Tuggy always introduced us, his employees, as his ‘co-workers,’ never once did he say his employees. I loved him for it. Tug always made everyone feel like they were somebody, even the ‘little guy’ on the totem pole.”

Fouts added that Tug helped her keep her grandmother’s home after she died and never judged anyone, even those with a past.

“Tug was such a staple of the community and didn’t care what you looked like or how much money you had, he treated anyone like they are somebody important,” said Fouts. “Everyone to Tuggy was a ‘mountain gangster’. And when Tug had an interest in something, watch the hell out because the Tug tornado was coming thru!”

Tug wearing his favorite T-shirt, the Jesus jump shot.

Fouts’ brother, Brandon (aka Cakey), also works at Tug’s Proper and said he’s going to miss Tug greeting him each morning with “Oh good Cakey.” He said Tug could make you feel special even when in a room full of people and taught him that everyone deserves a chance, even if they haven’t earned it.

“No matter what, Tuggy never ever made me feel like I wasn’t enough,” said Brandon. “Every day it was ‘I’m proud of you’ even if the only thing I did was get out of bed. But to him, that was great. Always wanting to bring someone’s outlook on the day or life in general to an all-time high.”

Pictured at the top of the article is Tug at his home in Highlands Falls.

Article by Brian O’Shea
Photos by people who love Tug

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