Bruce Heilman doesn’t want to ride into the sunset. He wants to blow right by it—preferably on his brand new Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide Patriot Edition.
The bike is a gleaming beauty: chrome and black with red and blue stripes, a Marine Corps emblem permanently affixed to the gas tank and an American flag painted on the rear fender.
Heilman and his wife, Betty, recently drove to Huntington, W.Va., to pick up the motorcycle just before his 81st birthday. He rode the bike 400 miles back to Richmond with Betty following in the car.
“I know he’s a good driver,” she says, “but I kept my eye on him.” She acknowledges with a laugh that he was leading the way, as he always has in their 59-year partnership.
Heilman was president of the University from 1971–86 and interim CEO in 1987–88. When he first arrived as president, he told the trustees that if one man could give a magnificent gift of $50 million, as E. Claiborne Robins had done in 1969, surely an entire university community could match it. He launched the Our Time in History campaign, a fundraising effort that dwarfed all previous campaigns in Virginia higher education. In addition to generating $50 million, the campaign broke new ground for a continuous cultivation of donors that raised $200 million during Heilman’s presidency.
A University that had been on the verge of bankruptcy blossomed with a construction program that created landmarks such as the Robins Center, Tyler Haynes Commons and the Gottwald Science Center. The percentage of faculty with Ph.D.s rose from 60 percent to 90 percent, and SAT scores for incoming students jumped to 235 points above the national average.
As a University chancellor, Heilman continues to do many of the things he did as president, but he is able to do them in his own way, in his own time.
He rises at 6 a.m. and holds his signature early morning friend-making breakfasts with people who are—or could be—vital to the University’s future. Most of his meals still revolve around the University’s agenda, and he often works until 10 or 11 p.m.
He is a legendary public speaker. “If you’re on an educational panel, you don’t want to follow Bruce,” says former President Richard E. Morrill, who also serves as a University chancellor. Heilman regularly speaks to student groups, and students often approach him in the Heilman Dining Center, fascinated to meet the building’s namesake.
He still raises money for Richmond, and he chairs a $150 million campaign to complete and endow the Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, Va. He also serves as honorary chair of a $50 million campaign at Campbellsville University, his alma mater.
“He has done on a smaller scale for his alma mater, Campbellsville, what Mr. Robins did for Richmond,” says daughter Terry Heilman Sylvester, B’76. “He has a reputation for being cheap,” she concedes, “but he just can’t stand to waste money.” His favorite restaurant may be Denny’s, but he gives away the money he saves.
Heilman also is generous with his time. He serves on 14 boards, several tied to Richmond or the University’s donors. Benefactor Dortch Oldham, R’41, told him never to resign from boards just because of his age. Oldham retired from several boards in his 80s and lived to regret it. “Once you leave them,” he said, “you can’t get
Heilman’s autobiography will debut later this year. He calls it An Interruption That Lasted a Lifetime: My First Eighty Years.
(Clockwise from top left) Heilman delays his weekly bath, admires his brotherís bike, finishes boot camp and takes intelligence officers to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s a Horatio Alger story of a high school drop-out, Kentucky tenant farmer’s son who rose to buck sergeant in the Marine Corps during World War II. He later earned a Ph.D. and served two universities as president.
It’s a story of optimism and patriotism, of faith and family, told in an engaging style with a modicum of modesty. “I’m bound to think quite well of myself,” Heilman explains, “because I was deemed capable of leading the University of Richmond.”
Heilman is an original, Morrill says. “He is a part of that wonderful strain in the American experience that says, ‘You get this job done because you take the initiative.’ … He’s the spirit of American entrepreneurial energy. He has lived the American dream. … He makes everything he touches better.”
Heilman’s optimism stems from his reaction to other people’s pessimism. Even his own father, a man he worshipped, was pessimistic. “His heart and mind were poisoned by the Depression,” Heilman explains.
It irked Heilman that his parents considered him less likely to succeed than his siblings because he did not do well in school. “I had been a failure in high school,” he says, “because I couldn’t conceive of ever needing all that book learning.”
Lacking the motivation to finish high school, Heilman dreamed of becoming a truck driver and followed his father’s example of working hard on the farm. “We worked all the time, milking those cows, hoeing that corn.” Now he feels guilty if he’s not busy. “My greatest pleasure,” he says, “is being busy.”
Were it not for the Marine Corps, Heilman believes he would still be milking cows in Kentucky.
The Marine Corps reinforced Heilman’s work ethic and convinced him that he could be a leader. To this day, his proudest accomplishment is making buck sergeant. He also cherishes his top scores in gunnery school, an assignment that may have saved him from the carnage of Iwo Jima.
He expected to die during the invasion of Japan. “I was willing,” he recalls. “Seventeen-year-olds think they’re invincible, but that’s what we were there for. We weren’t going to be taken prisoner. I thought my parents would be proud of me if I died fighting for my country. We didn’t know anything beyond the local community and farm. We thought it was God-given that we should do this.”
Heilman got a second shot at life when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, and he got another chance at academics when he enrolled in Marine Corps classes. He even took a correspondence course in mathematics because he had failed algebra twice in high school.
After the war, with help from the G.I. Bill, he decided to give higher education a try, and Campbellsville, then a junior college, decided to give him the opportunity. He never forgot the college’s kindness.
He earned a 99 on his first English test and never looked back. He met Betty at Campbellsville, and after their wedding, life became a blur of pursuing degrees and working to feed themselves and their growing family. Heilman toiled in the college wood-working shop and in the meat department of A&P. He even taught two classes at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University as an undergraduate.
(Clockwise from top left) Heilman in his official presidential portrait, standing on the Great Wall of China, eating lunch in the Heilman Dining Center and showing off his Marine Corps colors.
A master’s degree followed, as did a stint with a public accounting firm and jobs of increasing responsibility at colleges and universities. He earned his Ph.D. while serving as coordinator of higher education for the State of Tennessee.
Betty presented him with a Harley-Davidson Road King Classic as a 50th wedding anniversary gift in 1998. He was 72. He rode it faithfully until selling it to his son-in-law, David Sylvester. He sold it, he admits with a grin, “because I wanted the Patriot.”
The Patriot is “top of the line,” Heilman says. “It’s the biggest, classiest bike they build. … It’s a collector’s item sold only to military and those who have served in the military. … I had to present my World War II discharge papers before they’d let me buy one.”
Heilman travels with the Spider Riders, a group of faculty, staff and alumni, who take 100-mile trips, stop for lunch and head home.
“Dr. Heilman is the most entertaining person in the world,” says Skibo Adams, a Richmond staff member who organizes rides for the group. “He can tell you all those tales. He is so down home, and he seems to enjoy it as much as we do.”
In Heilman’s military riders group, he is the only World War II veteran, and in the local Hog Chapter, “he rubs shoulders with a very diverse group of riders,” Adams laughs. “When one of our members talked about his son in Iraq, Dr. Heilman gave a wonderful speech about the Marines and how proud he was of the young man. He is always shaking hands. He is quite an inspiration to me. He makes me look forward to retirement.”
On the road, Heilman keeps his own pace in the rear of the pack, Adams says. On one recent outing, a woman taking her first trip with the Spider Riders was worried about him. “I said, ‘You don’t need to worry about Dr. Heilman.’ When lunch came and he launched into his stories, the woman smiled and said, ‘I know now why you said he’d be OK.’”
Heilman loves to travel on his Patriot, but then again, the chancellor loves to travel on anything. He has visited 145 countries, conducting 40 tours around the world, mostly for Richmond alumni. His groups have traveled by plane, ship, bus, train, camel, cabs and jitneys, he says in his memoirs. They have climbed “the interminable stairs to the lofty heights of the Potala Palace in Tibet, carrying their own oxygen.” They have slept in a tent in the Gobi Desert and crossed the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Carolyn C. Green, W’61, joined Heilman on a trip to the South Pacific in 1973 after seeing a newspaper picture of him on a camel in Africa. “The accompanying article said he was preparing to take a group to Australia,” she recalls.
Green, a career elementary school teacher, had been thinking about teaching in Australia. “I called him, and he said, ‘Sure, you can go.’” After that, she felt like a member of the family, as does everyone who travels with the Heilmans.
“Dr. Heilman is just a wonderful, wonderful person. He really takes care of everyone,” Green says. “He’s also quite the diplomat. Once in Russia, a member of the group took photographs of bridges, train stations and airports and was stopped by the police. Dr. Heilman had to negotiate with the KGB.”
The Heilmans’ five children graduated from Richmond, and 11 of their grandchildren have graduated or are in the pipeline. One year while he was president, the Heilmans’ four daughters attended Richmond at the same time. Son Tim followed later.
Heilman combines two of his passions—riding his Harley and promoting the University.
Terry Heilman Sylvester, who serves on the Board of Trustees, says living in the President’s House as a teenager was wonderful—with formal entertaining often encompassing all three meals of the day.
“We met all the key leaders of Richmond and Virginia, including governors and CEOs,” Sylvester says. “Everybody had a passion for the University of Richmond, which was so much a part of the community.”
She remembers that early in his administration, Heilman was told that if he wanted an air conditioner for his office, he would have to pay for it. So Heilman vowed to build a financial structure that would buy air conditioners for everyone. (The last residence hall was air conditioned in 2006.)
“He really did lay the foundation,” Sylvester said. “Mr. Robins believed in the University, and he believed in my father’s leadership.” He gave a total of $175 million to UR during his lifetime. A $20 million gift from Robert S. Jepson Jr. also occurred on Heilman’s watch, and he has been instrumental in the cultivation of his good friend Marcus Weinstein, whose family has given the University many millions of dollars.
Sylvester laughs at the story of her dad riding back from West Virginia on his motorcycle with her mom watching his back.
“The two of them working as a team is what made U of R,” she says. Betty travels with him regularly, often serving as chauffeur so he can work on speeches.
“She packs his suitcase for every trip,” Sylvester says. “He stands in the kitchen and asks, ‘Do we have a fork?’ He literally doesn’t know where the forks are kept. It’s about as old-fashioned a relationship as you could ask for, but my two daughters want to be like them in their future relationships.”
“My dad is my hero,” Sylvester says. “He will never stop. He loves life.”
That love of life has inspired countless people, some of them total strangers.
Three motorcycles passed Heilman on his return trip from West Virginia. He caught up with them at a rest stop, and one of the bikers asked him how old he was. Heilman’s reply clearly pleased the middle-aged biker. “Oh, good!” he said. “I’ve got lots of years left to ride my Harley.”
Randy Fitzgerald is a freelance writer based in Richmond.
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