The Collegian
Wednesday, October 05, 2022

For Heilman, cross country Harley ride is a salute to the past

Ask Chancellor E. Bruce Heilman about leadership and he'll give you a few words of advice.

"The world steps aside to let anyone pass who knows where he's going," he said. And Heilman knows exactly where he's going. In less than a month, he'll be embarking on a 19-day cross-country motorcycle odyssey, carving through the fabled Route 66 on his Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic Patriot Special Edition.

"It rides like a Cadillac," Heilman said.

Heilman's journey is at once an exciting new step into the future as well as nostalgic return to his past. The trip will retrace the path he traveled 64 years ago as a young Marine Corps veteran returning from World War II. At 19 years old, Heilman departed from the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar in San Diego, in full uniform with a fellow marine. The two men hitchhiked 3,000 miles, relying on the kindness of fellow travelers until reaching the East Coast.

Now, at 82, Heilman is finally repeating that expedition in the opposite direction. He'll start in Richmond on Oct. 1, proceed through his home state of Kentucky into St. Louis, then weave through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. He's planning to average about 200 miles a day. One of his final stops will be the Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, where his first voyage began decades ago.

"It's an adventure," Heilman said. "My philosophy is, after 82 years, life is a journey. I've always moved in whatever directions opened for me."

And the directions Heilman has already traveled have truly been inspiring. After leaving his family's Kentucky farm for the first time at age 17 to enlist in the Marine Corps, Heilman was sent to the South Pacific and Okinawa during World War II. Upon returning, he found a new culture of education being established in the country thanks to the historic G.I. Bill.

Heilman decided to further his schooling, and the young man who once said he'd never go to college spent a 60-year career fostering and broadening the nation's higher education system. A renowned educator, he served as the university's president for 17 years and has been chancellor since 1988.

As chancellor, Heilman serves on various university boards, taking pleasure in his daily interactions with students, faculty and alumni.

"It's been the best time of my life," Heilman said. "I just get to enjoy my relationship with the people of this school."

A man well-versed in travel, Heilman has visited more than 145 countries. For 42 years he has been leading tours for Richmond alumni across the globe. Just two months ago, he returned from an excursion that took him to Heidelberg, through New Delhi and the Taj Mahal and into Kathmandu in Nepal.

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"You name it, we've been there," Heilman said.

The cross-country motorcycle trip will take Heilman back through familiar territory, albeit alongside some unfamiliar faces. The journey will initially be just Heilman and his Harley, with his daughter Nancy Heilman Cale and wife, Betty, following a similar route by car. But he plans to ride with any fellow alumni, veterans or Harley-enthusiasts he may encounter along the way.

"I'd say I'll be meeting up with about 100 or so people on the road," Heilman said. Already Richmond alumni are contacting him to get a spot riding through this adventure.

The trip is also an opportunity for Heilman to show his devotion to the Marine Corps and salute World War II veterans, living and dead.

"On this trip I'm representing the 16 million veterans who'd love to do the same thing," Heilman said. "There's only about 2 million of us left, but we're not all riding off into the sunset just yet. If we're ever gonna ride to California, we're gonna do it now."

Heilman's memoirs, "My First 80 Years," will be released later this month. In it, he recounts the adventures that took him from a small Kentucky farm across the world and landed him in Richmond.

And the adventures keep coming. "Frankly my biggest problem is I don't have enough time in my day," Heilman said. "When we aspire to something, we move. So I just keep on walking through every door that's opened for me, no matter where it leads. Almost like riding a motorcycle all the way to San Diego."

Contact reporter Michael Gaynor at michael.gaynor@richmond.edu

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