The Collegian
Saturday, April 13, 2024

The man behind the dining hall

<p>E. Bruce Heilman stands in front of his portrait hanging in the Heilman Dining Center.</p>

E. Bruce Heilman stands in front of his portrait hanging in the Heilman Dining Center.

Chocolate pie with meringue on top is just one of the many treats served at the beloved dessert bar in the Heilman Dining Center.

And, it happens to be E. Bruce Heilman’s favorite.

Heilman, former university president and current university chancellor, often visits his namesake building on campus to enjoy his favorite dessert, among other dining-hall delectables.

During Heilman’s time at Campbellsville Junior College, he enjoyed this same dessert served by his wife-to-be, Betty Dobbins Heilman, who had been completing her work-study at the dining hall. He delighted in the pie so much that he asked her for an additional piece.

She said they had only one to give to each student, Heilman said. She later came back to bring him her own piece.

“Well, I thought that was a nice gesture, so I asked her for a date,” Heilman said. “That’s how it all started, a piece of chocolate pie.”

This gesture led to over 60 years of marriage, preceded by 10 days of dating and a three-month engagement.

“You never know what precipitates a 65-year marriage,” Heilman said. "After we married, she used to make chocolate pie for a long time, and lots of it.”

Over their several decades of marriage, Heilman became a father, accountant, university president, grandfather and great-grandfather. Of his descendants, 37 have been Spiders.

When asked how he found Richmond, Heilman said that, rather, the university had found him. Heilman was sought out for the presidency in the early 1970s, when the university was nearly bankrupt.

“Richmond needed a strong fiscal leader and strong educational leader,” Heilman said. “There were 96 candidates for the presidency and none of them worked out. They got my name and didn’t have any competition.”

Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter

Heilman spent two days being interviewed by students, staff and faculty. He was everyone’s choice. But then he turned them down, he said.

Two weeks later they sent a representative to see whether he would come back, but he declined.

What changed his mind, however, was a promise by university benefactor E. Claiborne Robins to give $50 million to the university that Robins had made before Heilman's presidency. Robins had not been involved during Heilman's initial interview, which Heilman said was a mistake.

Heilman and Robins then met and spoke for hours about Robins’ ambition for Richmond to become one of the finest small universities in the country.

“I shared with him my philosophy on how we would make that happen,” Heilman said. “We agreed that we should make it happen.”

This marked the inception of Heilman’s 16-year presidency. Heilman recounts the conditions of the university before his presidency and Robins’ donation.

“For my first year or so, [the university] didn’t have any money,” Heilman said. “Our science building didn’t measure up to the local high-school science facilities. The library did not meet accreditation standards. The food services were under the scrutiny of the local health department. I was told I couldn’t open two of the dormitories when I arrived because they weren’t up to code.”

Teachers were grossly underpaid, and Heilman worked to increase faculty salaries from the 40th percentile to the 70th. Meanwhile, not a single facility on campus was air conditioned, Heilman said.

“People don’t go after cheap education,” Heilman said. “[Richmond’s] got everything the best schools from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, California, you name it. This was not true back then. I came here to change that.”

Heilman’s daughter Terry Heilman Sylvester, B’76, director of parent giving at the university, said Heilman didn't fit the mold of a university president.

“I think people think they have this impression of what a college president is, and it’s not him,” Sylvester said. “He’s not your typical academic president, but what Richmond needed was a fundraiser.”

Heilman’s accounting degree gave him the edge to raise money to make change happen. During his presidency, Heilman traveled all over the country and world to fund-raise for the university.

Before Heilman’s presidency began, the largest donation to the university had been $1.5 million. The largest campaign in the history of Virginia, and almost anywhere in the country, occurred during his presidency with Robins’ gift to the university.

“We could’ve gone through that $50 million so fast,” Sylvester said. But her father’s astute fundraising and leadership aptitude set the university up for success, she said.

Following Heilman’s presidency, he was appointed as chancellor of the university with the mission of being an ambassador of goodwill for the university.

As chancellor, Heilman continues to travel across the country to raise money and spread goodwill, often on his motorcycle.

Heilman, a member of the American Legion motorcycle club, first became involved in motorcycling while in the military at age 21. He had his Harley Davidson stationed in Quantico, Virginia. But, when he met his wife, he had a choice to make.

“I couldn’t afford a motorcycle and a wife, so I gave up the motorcycle,” Heilman said. “I didn’t have a motorcycle for 50 years.

“When I was 71 years of age, my wife bought me a brand-new red Harley Davidson Road King. She said, ‘You’ve been without this for a long time.’”

He continued to ride that motorcycle for 10 years before trading it. He’s covered all 50 states, over 100,000 miles, been to California and back three times and driven 5,100 miles to Alaska. And, just two weeks ago, he drove 600 miles to Kentucky.

“Living life to the fullest,” Heilman said. “That’s my philosophy. Even when I was in the military, when I knew I might get killed, I always saw that as an adventure.”

Heilman served in the Marine Corps during World War II and is the only university president to have served in the military in the past 200 years. His portrait hanging in the dining hall features him in his military uniform.

Despite Heilman’s full schedule serving the university and his fellow veterans, he spends a great deal of time visiting with some of the 60,000 graduates from his presidency at his namesake dining hall.

“They show up, call me, write me and part of my goodwill is keeping up with them,” Heilman said.

Heilman has a building named after him on three different college campuses.

“At Meredith [College], it’s a dormitory," Heilman said. "At my alma mater, it’s the student center complex. Here, it’s the dining area. I tell people I’m honestly famous for eating and sleeping.”

Heilman also often speaks at the Kiwanis club, the breakfast for Rolling Thunder, the motorcycle club, military get-togethers and civic clubs.

“My dad’s been an ambassador for 30 years and still maintains all these relationships, old and new,” Sylvester said. “He doesn’t think he’s 92 years old.”

Heilman maintains these relationships while living in the chancellor’s house that is located just off campus and was previously owned by the Weinstein family.

“The university takes care of my dad,” Sylvester said. “It’s a win-win. He’s good for them, and everyone here is so awesome to him.”

Sylvester recounted how the staff of Heilman's namesake dining hall rallied around him to celebrate the life of his wife after her passing a few years ago.

“All of the workers came back during the Christmas holiday because they wanted to have the reception,” Sylvester said. “They love my dad. They came on their own time to do the reception for my mom’s funeral.”

Sylvester also shared wisdom that her parents had passed on to her while she was growing up at the university: 

“The one thing my parents taught me was no matter who you are here, everybody is equal. If you’re the vice president, if you’re the maintenance workers ... and that is how they’ve treated everyone.”

Contact managing editor Sydney Lake at

Support independent student media

You can make a tax-deductible donation by clicking the button below, which takes you to our secure PayPal account. The page is set up to receive contributions in whatever amount you designate. We look forward to using the money we raise to further our mission of providing honest and accurate information to students, faculty, staff, alumni and others in the general public.

Donate Now