The Collegian
Thursday, October 29, 2020

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Heilman returns from 3,000-mile motorcycle trip

Chancellor E. Bruce Heilman set out to prove that you're never too old for an adventure while on his cross-country ride atop his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

"People would a sk me how I could possibly want to ride across country at my age," Heilman said, "and I'd say, 'Well, it's the only age I've got!'"

Heilman left Richmond the morning of Oct. 1 on his Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra-Classic Patriot Special Edition motorcycle after his 82nd birthday and rode roughly 300 miles a day to make the trip to San Diego, Calif. A crew of around 40 other motorcyclists followed behind him to see him off, gradually peeling off as Heilman arrived in Charlottesville, Va.

Heilman was never sore or overly tired during the 10-day trip that took him across almost 3,000 miles of a country that he has seen change dramatically during his 82 years of life, he said.

"You don't have to use up all your energy and resources when you're young," Heilman said. "Because, there is plenty of energy and joy in your 80s. You might not have time before to ride across the country on a motorcycle."

Heilman has documented some of his life in his memoir, "An Interruption of a Lifetime," which is on sale now.

Heilman has traveled across the country numerous times, and part of this trip retraced in reverse the historic Route 66 he had hitchhiked in his Marine Corps uniform 64 years ago when he returned from duty as a Marine from WWII.

Heilman has traveled across the country numerous times, and part of this trip retraced in reverse the historic Route 66 he had hitchhiked in his Marine Corps uniform 64 years ago when he returned from duty as a Marine from WWII.

Interstate highways, Heilman said, have absorbed most of Route 66, but some of the same hotels and restaurants still remain.

Heilman saw a lot of sights that someone could see from a car driving across the country, but, he was also able to smell and hear because he was on his motorcycle.

"I responded more to the various sights because I was on a motorcycle and not a car," Heilman said. "Being out in the open, you can hear and smell the sights and sounds. Everything was vivid."

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The trip also allowed Heilman to reconnect with alumni and friends. He wore a large Marine Corps emblem on the back of his leather jacket, he said, and because of this many Marine Corps veterans who had served in recent wars approached him. Talking to these veterans was one of his favorite parts of the journey.

Heilman spent a half day on the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar in San Diego.

"The men there treated me as if I had come back from the dead," Heilman said. "They enjoyed seeing me because they don't see many WWII veterans anymore, especially on a motorcycle."

As an 82-year-old traveling across country, Heilman turned a lot of heads, he said.

"When he took off his helmet and people saw his gray hair," said Betty Heilman, his wife of 60 years, "then they really wanted to talk to him."

Heilman has served as the chancellor or president at Richmond for the last 37 years. Heilman was president of Richmond from 1971 to 1986.

"I've spent nearly all my life in higher education," Heilman said. "And, of everything I've done, being this age and doing this type of thing has attracted more attention than anything. There has been more interest in how interesting it is that this old guy is riding across the country on a motorcycle."

Heilman, who is back in Richmond, plans to make the trip in the opposite direction in early March, he said. He will take a southern route and then store the bike in Florida until the weather warms up enough to ride to Richmond.

Heilman's path took him from Richmond to Charleston, W.Va., where he was soaked by a huge thunderstorm.

"Those big 16-wheel trucks soaked me good," Heilman said. "But that was the last rain I saw all trip."

Heilman then continued to Huntington, W.Va, and then to his home state of Kentucky where eight or 10 of his friends and family greeted him. His path continued through Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and eventually to San Diego, where he had his motorcycle stored and ready for a trip home.

There were heavy winds in the Arizona desert that nearly blew him off his motorcycle, he said. The speed limit was around 75 to 80 mph in that part of the country, but Heilman kept a pace of around 70 mph.

Despite the dangerous winds, the barren desert roads through Arizona were some of Heilman's favorite to drive, he said. He could see forever and liked that he wasn't passing through any cities.

"The tumble weeds started chasing me," Heilman said. "Tumble weeds are big and round, some were as tall as the motorcycle. And there were nearly 90 mph winds that could almost blow you off your motorcycle."

Next Heilman drove along the California freeway to San Diego, which he called the experience of a lifetime.

"I can tell you," Heilman said, "they are daredevils there. I either went their speed or they would have run me over."

Because Heilman wore an open-faced helmet, he got windburns on his face from the cold air. He wore his leather pants and a leather jacket on top of his blue jeans and jean jacket to protect him from the cold desert mornings.

Heilman made the trip across country alone on his motorcycle, but his wife followed him with his books and his fresh clothes by car for the entire trip. His daughter, Nancy Heilman Cale, followed from Richmond to Saint Louis and Terry Heilman Slyvester, who lives in Los Angeles, joined the ride later on and rode in the car to California.

Betty shares her husband's optimism, and was never scared for his safety on the trip, she said.

He was also selling copies of his memoir as he traveled. Heilman was able to sell 22 copies along the way. There are now eight bookstores across the country selling his book.

Contact staff writer Alexandra Varipapa at alexandra.varipapa@richmond.edu

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