Remembering Michael Sharp and Caroline Helbig

Friends and former colleagues remember the lives of the couple, both as peers in the industry and friends outside the office.

By Howard Karel, executive consultant and coach

Decades before “personal branding” became trendy, he had it all: the walk, the talk, the smile and the style. He was tall, pencil mustached with a slow Prairie drawl out of a Coen Bros flick. He deadpanned as he spoke and half-smiled as he joked.

“Wanna have some fun on P&G?” he quipped when I interviewed for a job at Grey Toronto. “Fun? On P&G?” I replied. “Yup, that’s why I moved agency-side years ago,” he said. I took the job and learned so much that year.

He had that client-side confidence and was cucumber cool at those notorious P&G budget meetings that could make or break your career. His pre-game pep talk was, “whatever else, know the category, the key players and your SWOT.”

He believed in making an entrance when visiting clients. “The Agency visit is the highlight of their day, ba-lieve you me, I’ve been on the other side.” In the dead of winter, he’d don his camel coat, ivory scarf and tan fedora and waltz into P&G’s new offices looking like a Jersey Don taking a family meeting as necks craned around cubicles for a glimpse of the spectacle.

Mike Sharp was my boss for a year and my friend for life. He hailed from Regina, HBA’d at Western University and his career path was a straight line: PM Bristol-Myers, VP at JWT Toronto, VP at Grey Toronto, SVP at Sprint Canada (from 1994 to 2000), VP and board director at search startup Call Genie in Calgary (from 2003 to07) and owner of Collingwood Channel Healthcare in Vancouver (from 2009 to 22), which sold exercise content to the physio-rehab sector.

Mike worked in five provinces over his career and was proud he got to see much of Canada. His interests were many: Junior A goalie for the Regina Pats, an avid canoeist, biker, hiker, boater, bridge player, coach and president of the West Vancouver Junior Hockey Association. Mike played hockey Wednesday nights with guys half his age and loved giving back to the game. His teammates called him Sharpie, which fit like a glove as he left a mark on all who touched him. Above all he was always up for a tall one and a good laugh.

It was at Grey Toronto where Mike met his future wife, Caroline Helbig. Caroline got her MBA at McMaster and joined Noxell in 1985 on Cover Girl Cosmetics, later bought by P&G. They were smitten from the get-go and thus began their journey together. From St. John’s in 1992, back to TO for six years and to Vancouver in 2000, where they settled with their toddler son Alex. Caroline got her editing certificate at Simon Fraser U and began her writing career with articles published in The Globe & Mail, Reader’s Digest, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, North Shore News and on her travel blog, Writes of Passage, which was her pride and joy.

Wanderlust coursed through her veins and they hiked, biked, paddled and traveled off the beaten path the world over, all captured in colourful detail in her travel blog. Above all, Caroline was a loving daughter, sister, wife, volunteer and mom to her young son Alex who was the apple of her eye.

For those who have not heard, Mike and Caroline tragically died on Jan. 2, when a tree fell on their house in West Vancouver in a freak accident after a wild windstorm. They are survived by their 24-year-old son Alex who lived with them but fatefully was staying at a friend’s home that night. A memorial fund has been set up in their name and is accepting contributions, and there are plans for a Commemorative Bench, a scholarship in Mike’s name and a writing scholarship in Caroline’s.

They will be so missed by so many. I shared many good times with Mike and Caroline over the years and more than anything they taught me to live life to the fullest as they did. So stop and enjoy the big and small moments of life and don’t wait for retirement. The late Clarence Clemons would say “order the good wine” when saying goodbye to a friend, as you never know what tomorrow brings. Most of all, have some fun and maybe buy yourself a fedora. Mike would like that.

To honour their memories, here are a few stories of Mike and Caroline that paint rich portraits of lives lived large to the end.

Tim Penner, former president, P&G Canada

Mike and I met in the 80s, when he was at Grey Toronto, in the early days of both our careers. The “Mad Men” era of the industry was winding down, but there were still lots of crazies around who were remnants of that time on both the agency and the client side. Into that world came Mike – a genuinely good guy.

He was smart, clear-thinking, hard-working and earnest. I trusted him. I valued his thinking and I felt that he valued mine. We collaborated on some good work. It seems to me that relationships built on trust and mutual respect will always be at the core of most great work between agency and client.

I considered Mike a friend and we connected outside of work. I have a great memory of playing hockey with Mike in a NABS charity event. Paul Henderson was on our team and Frank Mahovlich was on the opposition.  The highlight of my hockey career was playing defence as Mahovlich skated down the wing and fired a slap shot off my kneecap with Mike behind me in goal.  We won the game thanks to Mike’s solid play in net, with little contribution from me other than a sore knee.

I most remember Mike as a smart, trustworthy colleague and friend who was always up for a laugh or two. While Caroline and I both worked at P&G, we were in different parts of the business so I don’t remember her as well. I want to offer my condolences to the families on this shocking tragic loss.

Lance Saunders, former President, DDB Canada

Mike was a dream boss for a newly minted advertising executive. He was young, smart and made working in an agency a lot of fun. He was also a great goalie and together we ended up playing in a lot of pick up and ad agency hockey games.

I remember one late afternoon we were racing to get to an early game and Mike was leading a conference call with our P&G client while on his office floor trying to squeeze in his extensive pre-game goalie stretch routine. All of a sudden from the floor we heard this loud ripping sound as he tore his suit pants almost literally in half from his crotch. He never missed a beat with the client and sold our agency reco, while his team howled with laughter. A quick fix with about two dozen staples from his desk stapler and we rushed out the door.

Nothing ever seemed to faze Mike and it was a good lesson in the “remain calm and carry on” mindset that I will always remember.

Thirty years later and many agencies and jobs between us, Mike, Howard Karel (another Grey alumnus and close friend) and I were still all connected. We debated the Habs’ chances for a playoff run, U.S. politics, must-read books and the global economy in some really lovely email debates right up until he passed away. I will really miss waking up and seeing an email from Mike on the West Coast and reading what was on his inquisitive mind at the moment.

Howard Karel, former worldwide account director, DDB New York

In July 2000, Mike and I did a seven-day canoe trip in Temagami, a five-hour drive north of Toronto, classic canoe country.

Over a week and five lakes I learned of Mike’s expertise as a canoeist, map reader and hiker. On day five we were halfway across the largest lake when a storm came on us from behind with an hour to shore. We picked up the pace but we were no match as it barrelled down, whipping the waves over canoe height.

“We gotta tack now, I’ll steer, paddle for life and follow me,” Mike shouted. The sky was dark as the shoreline came into focus. We beached as the heavens hurled fire and rain, put up our tent and hunkered down drenched and exhausted.

“That was pretty hairy,” I said as our lantern went out. Mike rolled over in his bag. “Just a midsummer day up in The North, bud. What’s better than that, eh? G’night.”

What I most remember about Mike was his solidity, intelligence and keen curiosity. Above all he was just a fun guy, always up for happy hour with good friends. We shared birthdays a year apart and partied every June 22 at Southside Charlie’s in Yorkville, drinking and laughing late into the warm summer night.

Caroline was a P&G brand manager when they first met at Grey and I knew from the get-go it was a special union. Caroline and Mike were soulmates until the end sharing the same values, interests and dreams. They retired to BC in 2007 and forged a new life with their young son Alex, of whom they were so proud. Weekends were spent hiking BC’s fab trails and annual adventure travel the world over.

As a brand strategist I was taught “great brands have big shoulders” to carry all their virtues, values, traits and largess. So by this standard, Mike and Caroline are ‘great brands’ who’ll live in our hearts forever and always. My condolences to the families, especially to their young son Alex, on their impossibly sad and tragic loss. My special thanks to Caroline’s sister Monika Helbig who lives in Vancouver and helped provide invaluable details on Caroline’s career and life journey.

Stuart Solway, former colleague, Grey Canada

Mike Sharp and I worked together at Grey Toronto in the late 80s and early 90s when I was a copywriter on one of his accounts, P&G.

He once shared with me that he had played junior hockey as a goaltender with the Regina Pats in the Western Hockey League (WHL). But that was just the tip of the ice skate. After a little prodding (Mike was very shy about his accomplishments), I also discovered that he had shared the Pats’ dressing room with future NHL goal scoring machine Reggie Leach, who served time as the legendary Bobby Clarke’s wing man.

Lucky for us, Mike had not given up the game. At the time, he was the backstop on a team that featured some former NHLers, including Mike Kitchen, who would later become the Leaf’s head coach.

I was shooting an Aqua Velva commercial with “Le Magnifique” Mario Lemieux one summer. Mario shyly admitted that he was worried that he didn’t have his hockey chops, having spent his entire post-season with a golf club in his hand, rather than a stick. Mario checked to see if we could arrange some practice time for him before we did the shoot.

I asked Mike if he would mind going between the pipes for the good of the creative team. And as the consummate team player, he agreed.

We sweetened the deal by getting a very cooperative Mario to agree to do something for a charity I can’t remember. Mario would attempt to score on five breakaways – and he would make a donation every time he failed.

So there goes Mario – at that time, the greatest hockey player on earth – at full speed, a stickhandling virtuoso, gracefully moving in on Mike, now out of his crease attempting to cut down the angle. Flick of the wrist, Mario shoots the puck high aiming for the upper right corner just beneath the crossbar. And whoosh, up goes Mike’s glove hand deftly snaring the puck in mid- air. A thing of beauty, with those on hand clapping frenetically. Mike has stoned “The Magnificent One!” Mario circles around and pats Mike’s pads with his stick, a hockey player’s way of saying “nice save buddy” without any words.

Predictably, Mario scored on the next four breakaways. But saving one out of five against the best in the world is still another great moment in a life well lived.

Dr. John Cairns, former Dean of Medicine, UBC

I first met Mike Sharp about six years ago at bridge lessons at the Glen Eagles Community Centre. I soon realized that he was an excellent bridge player and had a wonderful sense of humour. Four years ago my wife had a major stroke and died a few months later. For a time I stopped many activities including bridge. When I began to play again, Mike and I got to know each other better, and I first met Caroline when they asked me for dinner – what great cooks they both were.

Shortly thereafter Mike and I became bridge partners, playing two or three times a week for the past two years. We were both serious about it, and spent many hours talking on the phone analyzing our games and trying to improve. Mike was also the instigator of the “Bridge Buddies,” Jackie Jamieson, Lisa Butjes, Deanna Bryden and me – he organized a game for us every week for the past three years.

During that time, I increasingly recognized Mike’s intelligence, his questing mind, his love of hockey and his commitment to the community. I also met Caroline several times and was charmed by her warm and friendly manner and captivated by her travelogues and her photography. I also met their son, Alex, on Zoom. He was considering applying to medical school and as a former UBC Dean of Medicine, I was happy to discuss some strategies with him.

I miss Mike profoundly. He and Caroline were a wonderful couple – my friendship with them was far too brief.

Shannon Stewart, friend of Caroline and Mike

Caroline was a brand manager for Cover Girl when the slogan “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful, Cover Girl” was in vogue. But she was far more in sync with the recent re-brand: “I Am What I Make Up.”

I first met Caroline when she was a founding member of the Coalition to Save Eagleridge Bluffs and she was giving everything she had to save her treasured Whyte Lake and surrounding wetlands from highway expansion in West Vancouver. Caroline embraced her life and passions with a fearless kind of joy and energy that drew people to her.

She loved nature. Forest rambles always seemed to veer off the beaten path to glimpse surprise waterfalls, or trudge through deep snow in search of a trail. She was an avid skier, figure skater, hiker, paddle boarder, kayaker, biker and Zumba dancer. Many epic voyages were made with Mike and her beloved son, Alex – the light of her life.  Caroline returned home to capture their world adventures in her informative travel blog Writes of Passage where she inspired
others to live their lives to the fullest.

In recent years Caroline reinvented herself as a freelance writer and editor.  Her stories were published all around, and whether describing German bathing rituals or shopping for her son’s graduation suit, she always managed to capture the hilarity of life.

I will miss Caroline’s gourmet meals, her European elegance, her wacky sense of dress-up fun during her annual Osoyoos half-corked marathons and knowing I was with someone who would listen deeply and give all she could to a friend.