To understand the remarkable life of Chancellor E. Bruce Heilman, it helps to begin long before he ever came to the University of Richmond. His story of determination and realized potential explains in large part why he became such a great leader for the university.

It begins in rural Kentucky, where Heilman, the son of a tenant farmer, began milking cows in the predawn hours at age 9 and was, by his own account, a lackluster student.

“I slept a lot, and I really thought I was pretty dumb because I got terrible grades,” he told an interviewer a few months before his death Oct. 19. “The teachers, ... they just ignored me.”

When the nation called its sons to war after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Marines at age 17 and headed off to basic training. There, he found a curriculum in which he excelled. He earned respect as top scorer on the rifle range and took classes at the Marine Corps Institute.

“That was the beginning of my recognition of the principle that if you work at it and you want to do it, you can,” he said.

There were harder lessons waiting for him. As his unit sailed across the Pacific, its ship endured submarine and air attacks before unloading marines at Okinawa for bloody battles up onto hills and down into caves. When the war ended, “I had grown up from age 17 in the Marine Corps,” he said. “By then I was 19 years old. I was a mature person. I had my own mind.”

When he returned home at age 21, he had his GI Bill benefits in hand but lacked a high school diploma. He couldn’t find a four-year college willing to take him. A fellow marine suggested he try a junior college, Campbellsville, which gave him the opportunity he was ready for.

“The story there is I went in wondering if I could pass, and I graduated with a 3.9 average,” Heilman said.

E. Bruce HeilmanHe flourished at his next stop, too, Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt University. When two faculty members resigned midyear, his department turned to its ace undergraduate. Heilman — the kid who couldn’t pass algebra just a few years earlier — taught the mathematics of accounting to his peers. He went on to get his master’s and doctoral degrees, began a career in higher education, and became president of Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, by age 40. In 1971, he came to the University of Richmond as president, charged with steering the institution into a new era.

E. Claiborne Robins, R’31, had just pledged the largest sum ever given to an American university by a living benefactor, which he bestowed on his alma mater with the hope of transforming it into “one of the finest small universities in the nation.” Robins gave Heilman his support from the very start.

The legacy of Heilman’s tenure as the gift’s first steward is on display in every corner of the university today, from the availability of funding for ambitious programs and policies to buildings such as the Robins School of Business, the Gottwald Center for the Sciences, Tyler Haynes Commons, the Robins Center, and more. Heilman Dining Center, where he enjoyed lunch with generations of students, bears his name. As President Ronald A. Crutcher wrote shortly after Heilman’s death, “His imprint on our campus is momentous and far-reaching for every living Spider.”

In the wake of his passing, praise for his capable leadership sat easily alongside stories of his personal kindness and love of motorcycles, which he rode into his 90s to promote support for veterans.

Heilman “was uniquely qualified to lead the university to prominence after the Robins gift,” Gerri Daly Leder, W’78, wrote on social media. “His contributions are innumerable, and his real gift was making each person who stood before him feel like the most important person to cross his path. He’ll never be forgotten.”
To see photos from throughout Chancellor Heilman’s life and to read President Crutcher’s announcement of his passing, go to richmond.edu/heilman.