Alex Helmbrecht: From local stages to the national spotlight

Alex Helmbrecht
Tuesday, August 1, 2023

A love of theater allowed Alex Helmbrecht to attend McCook Community College for free.

What began in the glare of the spotlights on McCook stages ultimately prepared him for a bigger stage and a fulfilling career in higher education. He’s been at Chadron State College since 2007 and now is director of college relations.

“MCC was an easy transition into college,” Helmbrecht said.

He got his start, thanks in part, to former MCC Theater Instructor Sue Watts who was familiar with Helmbrecht’s work in local productions and offered him a theater scholarship. Along with his ACT score, he attended MCC for free, becoming the first person in his family to attend college.

“At the time I didn’t realize this, but as a first-generation college student I wasn’t adequately prepared for college,” he said. “It turned out MCC was a great way for me learn on the go without faltering.”

During his time on stage at MCC and in Southwest Nebraska Community Theater Association productions, Helmbrecht was involved in the longtime tradition of “A Christmas Carol,” as well as “Pools Paradise,” “Marvin’s Room,” “Macbeth,” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” to name a few.

“I really enjoyed the productions we put on,” he said. “Knowing what I know now, with limited budgets affecting a lot of the arts, I never felt negatively impacted by that part of it. Sue Watts, the other faculty and people in the community did a great job minimizing that and focused on the craft. We took pride in our work, and we staged quality productions.”

In his other college classes, Helmbrecht said he never felt overwhelmed. He recalled walking into his first class, algebra, taught by Lynn Salyer, and that about 80 percent of the students were from his high school.

Helmbrecht enjoyed English classes, particularly gaining a greater knowledge of American writers. It was at MCC that he first came to enjoy the writing of William Faulkner.

“I remember wanting to continue learning more about these writers,” he said. “Really the faculty were as good as any faculty I encountered and really engaged with us. They prepared me well for later education and what I’m doing now.”

Helmbrecht enjoyed history with Chet DeVaughn and sociology with Mike Hendricks, although he recalls DeVaughn gave difficult tests. He looks back at his MCC years as a joyful time in his life.

“This was pre-social media, and while people had cell phones, we actually talked to each other and just hung around campus playing hacky sack between classes or threw frisbees on the lawns between the buildings or just hung out at the Student Union,” Helmbrecht said.

While he was admittedly outgoing, he knew almost everyone on campus and felt a strong bond with his classmates.

“I just loved the campus and the opportunity theater gave me at MCC,” Helmbrecht said. “The curriculum provided me well with a liberal arts background, which became the building blocks for my career.”

The theater major received his associate degree from MCC in 2002 and transferred to Chadron, where a Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society transfer scholarship helped defray the cost.

He recalled a history class at Chadron that required students to make two presentations.

“With my preparation in theater, literature and composition classes at MCC, I was well prepared, but I noticed some of my classmates were struggling with public speaking,” Helmbrecht said.

He did not continue with theater in Chadron, instead realizing he wanted to focus more on English. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2005 and minored in journalism.

He spent his first two years out of college in Scottsbluff working as a reporter for the Scottsbluff Star-Herald. While the experience was rewarding and he was happy, journalists aren’t traditionally paid well.

He was considering becoming a teacher and moving to Kearney when he noticed an advertisement for the sports information position at Chadron, so he applied. In 2007, he was hired at Chadron State to take over for legendary sports information director Con Marshall.

Almost immediately in his new job, that spotlight Helmbrecht sought as an actor in McCook shined brightly in his direction because Chadron football player Danny Woodhead was drawing national attention.

In his first four months, Helmbrecht handled inquiries from the likes of CBS, “The New York Times” and ESPN. One day, he got a call from a reporter in Connecticut whose grandparents lived in Kimball. He wanted some insight into Woodhead. It turned out to be Chris Fowler, host of ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

Helmbrecht spent a lot of his first four months on the job with Woodhead and even accompanied him to the 2007 Harlon Hill Trophy presentation in Florence, Ala. That award is given to the most valuable player in NCAA Division II football.

“I remember that CBS wanted a ‘hero’ video shot of Danny on the practice field with tattered uniform, dirty cleats,” said Helmbrecht. “On my way to the field with him, I spotted what had to be a six-foot long snake slithering toward us and stopped Danny from getting close to it. From then on, the joke was that in addition to sports information duties I was also Danny’s snake wrangler.”

For seven years, Helmbrecht worked with student-athletes, traveled to road games and became an important part of their lives. He joked that he was invited to six weddings every summer for five years in a row because of how close he got to the players.

In 2013, Helmbrecht was named Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Sports Information Director of the Year. It was quite an honor – especially for someone who never competed in sports in high school.

“I played sports video games in my youth but eventually grew to enjoy the statistics part of sports - the rules, the nuances, the conversations,” Helmbrecht said.

After seven years in sports information, the grind of working every night and every weekend was wearing on him, so he transferred internally to his present role as Director of College Relations.

For the past eight years, he has been responsible for the management and operations of that department. His wide range of responsibilities as the primary media liaison include developing and overseeing all communication, marketing and advertising.

That includes brand identity, student and employee retention, crisis and emergency management, marketing support for academic departments, managing all news stories, digital broadcasting as well as leading the hiring, training and supervising of department staff.

He has been the editor of the Chadron State Alumni Magazine since 2012, is a member of the CSC President’s Cabinet, the President’s Executive Council and the Strategic Plan Task Team, is co-chair of the CSC diversity committee and adviser for Blue Key Honor Society, which named him the Outstanding National Adviser of the Year in 2021. Helmbrecht is also a graduate of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) Emerging Leaders Program.

He gets to return to his McCook “live theater roots” as a frequent guest for various radio and news programs, and he co-hosts a campus podcast. Since 2019, he has also been on the board of directors at Post Playhouse, the live theater company in Crawford that produces several musicals every summer in Fort Robinson State Park.

“I never could sing, but this is one way to stay involved in theater,” Helmbrecht said. “The Post Playhouse is such a gem and originated with a boost from CSC, so it’s great to be able to represent the college and my alma mater.”

He is nearing completion of his master’s degree in organizational management from Wayne State College, expecting to complete that degree next year.

"For half of my life, higher education has been a part of what I do and who I am,” Helmbrecht said. “Places like McCook and Mid-Plains Community College in general are wonderful. They are there to help and serve the region, and I’m glad I was a product of that.”