By Smith Maddrey
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2002, Vol. 17, No. 2
Experiences abroad have toughened the spirit of Bush Helzberg. His NOLS course-a 1991 Semester in Kenya-taught him innumerable life lessons and was a catalyst for future edifying experiences abroad. Over years of travel, his exposure to famine, death and scant living conditions made him realize what was important in his life, preparing him well for the tragic events on September 11, 2001.
Helzberg recalls the difficulty he had getting to his 1991 NOLS semester in Kenya course. "It was the day Desert Storm began and I was in Sudan's air space before being re-routed to land in Egypt. There I was delayed. A day and half late, I finally met up with my semester group at the base of Mount Kenya. Everyone was curious about the war."
The semester course was chock full of lessons. Helzberg fondly recalls an episode during independent student travel when his group got lost in dense vegetation, had to bivy, and the tent had fallen off his backpack. He humbly returned to get it. "NOLS taught me how to survive and thrive in the wilderness. My course cemented my interest in Africa and gave me the confidence to travel and live absolutely anywhere in world."
Helzberg's interest in Africa-and thirst for adventure-continued to grow. After returning to Michigan to finish his undergraduate degree, earning a B.A. in Development Strategies for Africa, he worked in Nigeria on a short-term project for an aviation leasing company. The project involved transporting Muslim pilgrims from northern Nigeria to Saudi Arabia and back for the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Then, after a brief period in the U.S., he began his Peace Corps work in Mali, West Africa, where he was stationed in a small village on the banks of the Niger River. "My NOLS experience made me comfortable with the idea of living in a mud house with no electricity or running water for two years." Helzberg's biggest project-of which he was chief architect-was opening a savings and credit bank in a nearby town to promote economic development for the local community.
Returning to the U.S. in 1996, Helzberg began law school at Stanford. He would take a leave of absence to get his business degree at Columbia and graduate with both advanced degrees in May 2000. In August 2000, Helzberg started a position as an Associate with Lehman Brothers, an investment banking firm formerly headquartered in the World Financial Center.
On the morning of September 11th, Bush Helzberg wasn't far from the catastrophe. At 8:47 a.m. he left his apartment located ten blocks north of the World Trade Center, bound for a client meeting in Connecticut. A minute later he saw the gaping hole and fire in the North tower. Helzberg knew immediately that it was a large-scale disaster, but had no idea, at that time, that what he was looking at would change the world.
His business colleagues who were in the office that day witnessed the catastrophe and were quickly evacuated. "Overall our firm was very fortunate, but we did lose one person."
He never went back to his office in the World Financial Center, as it was damaged. As a temporary solution, the firm took over a Sheraton Hotel in midtown and turned it into a fully functioning investment bank in about a week. Helzberg said "The management of the firm demonstrated incredible leadership, getting the firm up and running as quickly as possible while at the same time being sensitive to the loss of life and emotional pain all New Yorkers faced. Working out of a hotel was annoying at times, but then you remember what happened and how lucky you are to be alive. September 11th put everything in perspective."