Officiating Spotlight: Kris Jaeger-Helton
One of the USTA’s more experienced officials is also one of Northeastern University’s most decorated faculty members, and Beverly ‘Kris’ Jaeger-Helton uses her unique skillset to give back to others.
A 14-time “Engineering Professor of the Year” at Northeastern, Helton has a master’s degree in the areas of biomechanics and neuroscience as well as a doctorate in human-machine systems engineering with cognitive psychology.
And when she’s not consulting on projects, serving as an expert forensic witness in biomechanical engineering for legal cases, presenting research to the American Society for Engineering Education or guiding co-eds through their culminating capstone projects, you can find her wearing khakis and a polo on the tennis court.
Helton holds a bronze badge in chair umpiring from the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and has worked at all four Grand Slams, three Olympic Games—with the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Paralympics also on her schedule—and multiple ATP, WTA and USTA Pro Circuit events in the chair, on the lines and as a Review Official over the course of the past two decades.
Her current roles, which might seem divergent to some, converged early on to set her on her career path. The No. 1 singles player for both her school and tennis club as a teenager, the Massachusetts native was fully committed to balancing tennis and academia, even in her youth at Foxborough High School. She later went on to graduate with honors in the Top 10 of her high school class of 300 students and summa cum laude at university.
“I realized that I liked playing tennis, but I was also really keen on studying, moving forward and doing other activities,” she said. “I didn’t see tennis as my future profession. It was a passion, but it wasn’t a career direction for me. I concentrated on doing well in high school because I wanted to move on to university and succeed there and beyond.”
Nonetheless, it was during a summer vacation—as part of an annual trip with her father to watch the Volvo International men’s professional tournament in North Conway, N.H.—that she was introduced to officiating.
“I saw one of the coaches from a local opposing team, one of our competitors, out there umpiring,” she said. “When I met up with him off court, I asked, ‘Coach, how do you get to do this?’ He said, ‘It will take some training, practice and dedication, but you can do it!’”
From there, she was on her way.
“I got a letter of recommendation to the tournament referee from the boys’ tennis coach, who was also a teacher at our high school, Bob Bridges,” Helton continued. “I had an association with him both academically and through tennis. Not only had he created opportunities for me to practice with the boys’ tennis team, I also did an independent study with him to become more prepared for college.
“He was a great mentor. He wrote me the recommendation letter, and I was invited to ‘try out’ to be an umpire for this tournament when I was a teenager.”
Helton later became the first rookie line umpire on record selected to officiate a finals match at the tournament, which saw Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl among its champions during its tenure in New Hampshire.
As her journey began with help from mentors, Helton now balances her time doing the same for others—helping them on their respective paths, both on and away from the tennis court. She has been on the USTA Officials’ Coaching and Mentoring Team and is now a USTA National Trainer, focusing on training chair umpires when she is off-court. She also volunteers in Boston at the Volley Against Violence Tennis Program with the Boston Police for local city youth, and she has received the College of Engineering Mentoring Award at Northeastern.
“So many people were generous enough to support me, coach me along the way and serve as role models. The people who came alongside me were helpful, positive and constructive. Those are the traits that the USTA really promotes,” she said.
“It feels good to give people an opportunity to progress, particularly to those who have had no identifiable mentors in their life. I often say [to them], ‘I’m not exceptional. I started where you are. I focused on working hard, preparing, learning, observing, reflecting and improving. Bring commitment and an open mindset.’”
By turning her various passions into a full-fledged career, both during school semesters and summers and in the United States and abroad, Helton has seen first-hand how pursuing officiating also offers an opportunity for personal growth.
“In engineering, we solve complex problems, conduct design-and-build projects and work in a diversity of industries. For those challenges, as well as being in leadership in the Galante Engineering Business Program at Northeastern… working as an umpire has really helped me: in thinking on my feet, where no situation is the same, managing multifaceted projects with several layers, covering technical elements in the lab or classroom, and when dealing with a variety of stakeholders and outside companies,” she said.
“It’s about meeting people where they are, whether it’s players on court, a corporate executive, a student with a question or a new umpire.
“It’s also about developing trust, which involves viewing situations from the perspective of others, and trying to be mentally agile enough to narrow the lens for the details and widen the lens for the system.”
As someone often tasked with the training and education of others, Helton, who speaks three languages and is also working on obtaining her private pilot’s license, has continued to learn, grow and welcome new experiences in her various mentoring roles.
“Having traveled the world, being at tournaments with other umpires has just been amazing. The friendships I’ve made are incredible," she said. “We’ve also explored so many cultures and exotic places together.
“The number of people who have visited our home from around the globe is remarkable. I have a simple bouquet of miniature flags from all the countries of the people who have come to our home. It’s fun to add to that vase.
“What’s rewarding to me about giving back, mentoring, training and coaching, is coming alongside a person, as opposed to saying, ‘Follow me.’ Umpiring also challenges me in a way such that I never think I have arrived. I always feel like there’s more work to do, more opportunities to reflect, more ways to develop, evolve and improve.”
And for those with different passions or careers who might be considering a jump into officiating, Helton says to take the leap.
“None of these things that are a part of my life have happened independently of each other. There’s so much positive crossover,” she said.
“You can bring the mindset, skills and experiences from various aspects of your life to the umpiring realm. Likewise, you can bring elements of umpiring back into your personal life and career in ways that are more enriching than you can imagine.”
For more information about USTA Officiating, click here.