The distinct, collective hum of 22 Harley-Davidson motorcycles filled the University Forum Sunday afternoon in celebrating the life of former president of the University of Richmond, World War II veteran and avid motorcyclist, Chancellor E. Bruce Heilman. The motorcyclists were from the Charles A. Ransom Post 186 at the American Legion, which Heilman was a member of.
The service was held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Cannon Memorial Chapel, filled with hundreds of friends, family members, veterans, fellow motorcyclists and others whose lives had been touched by Heilman.
“He was just … somebody to look up to just from his stories and you know, everything that he’d been through in his life,” said Gordie Holmes, a fellow motorcyclist and member of the same American Legion post. “It was just great to know him.”
Holmes made many trips with Heilman and was a member of the freedom riders who rode into the Forum.
Others, like Harold Babb, had a relationship with Heilman because of UR.
“He was my personal and professional mentor and I was a professor here for 38 years,” Babb said. He recalled that Heilman had spoken at his retirement party.
A collection of remembrances from friends and family members of Heilman were highlighted by musical components from the Schola Cantorum on campus, as well as a tribute from one of his daughters, Sandy Heilman Kuehl, who sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Heilman’s daughter Terry Heilman Sylvester gave one of the remembrances, which was filled with stories about her father’s life up until his last days.
Heilman Sylvester described how her father had an extremely busy schedule, even driving his motorcycle from Kentucky to Richmond only a few weeks ago. His unconditional love for the important aspects in his life and his “full-speed ahead” attitude are what drove him throughout his life, she said.
“The essence of our dad’s life was a reflection of the five things that he loved most, in this order: his faith, family, the Marine Corps, his profession and adventure,” Heilman Sylvester said. “If he were here, he might argue that the Marine Corps should be at the top of the list.”
Archer Yeatts, an alumnus of both UR’s undergraduate and law schools, '64, '67, described Heilman’s effect on his life.
“My wife was one of the first female trustees on the board in 1975 thanks to Dr. Heilman and he has remained a friend of ours ever since,” he said. “Both our daughters went here and he was good to them. So he’s been a dear friend.”
Some would say Heilman was larger than life, Yeatts said, but Heilman would not say that about himself. He was just a good, genuine, skillful human being who helped to transform UR.
Heilman taught his children about both money and people, Heilman Sylvester said.
“Wherever he was, he loved getting to know all kinds of people and always found a common connection,” she said.
Dick Mateer, a former UR professor, and his wife, Mickey, both described how they had one of these connections with Heilman.
“He’s originally from Kentucky, so am I,” Mateer said. “He was always somebody who was always a hero to me.”
Heilman Sylvester continued to describe how much love her father had for his family throughout his life. When asked what he was most proud of during his life and what his parting words would be, he said without hesitation that it was his family.
“‘The greatest thing you can do in life is to love, show your love for one another because there is never enough time to fully show it. No matter how hard you try,’” Heilman Sylvester said, quoting her father.
Heilman wanted to pursue a profession in higher education because it had such an impact on his own life, Heilman Sylvester said. He wanted to be able to transform other students’ lives as well.
UR has always played an important role in the Heilman family members’ lives, especially when the campus community came together to support Heilman when his wife, Betty Dobbins Heilman, died in 2013, she said.
“After my mother passed away, everyone on campus took extra special care of him,” Heilman Sylvester said. “From the Heilman dining staff, where he’d go and they’d give him hugs and dust off his jackets and prepare his breakfast regardless of how early he showed up, to the facilities and maintenance crew that took care of his home, and security that kept a watchful eye, everyone on campus made him feel like he was a VIP.”
Jerry C. Davis, the president of the College of the Ozarks and a friend of Heilman, shared stories about the advice that Heilman gave him for running a college and about how poignant a speaker Heilman was. Davis said Heilman’s legacy would be defined by his love of his family and his faith, as well as his time at UR.
Chancellor and former president of UR, Richard L. Morrill, spoke fondly of the man who helped advise him during his tenure. Heilman always gave credit to the leadership of subsequent presidents, faculty, staff and resources provided, Morrill said.
“He created what I call, the university’s culture and narrative of possibility, which is now at the very core of our identity,” Morrill said.
Heilman’s skills in managing money and choosing leadership were helpful when Morrill, Heilman’s successor from 1988 to 1998, acquired Heilman’s staff, and later presidents benefitted from Heilman’s financial decisions, he said.
“He took great pride in seeing that the engine that he built now had even more fuel and horsepower and he continued to observe its steady march to a national leadership.”
Morrill described some of the things that Heilman loved and how he might have passed on.
“In this vision, we see that there’s an infinite line of Harleys revving their engines, a universal choir of Marines giving perfect voice to their hymn, a mighty cohort of Richmond Spiders cheering in everlasting exultation, and Betty and other family members, opening wide their arms,” Morrill said.
The Rev. David Burhans, colleague, friend and Chaplain Emeritus at UR, was appointed as the first chaplain to UR in 1974 by Heilman. Burhans emphasized that Heilman was at peace with himself and that he kept and nurtured his faith throughout his life, as modeled by Heilman’s mother and father.
The service ended with the flag folding ceremony. Bruce Russell, adjutant at the Marine Corps League Detachment #329 located in Richmond, Virginia, narrated the color guard along with three of Russell’s colleagues.
Heilman’s grandson, Chris Hudgins, illustrated how much his grandfather cared about others with his common greeting, “Hey there, friend.” He explained that this greeting meant that whether Heilman knew you for 10 minutes or 10 years, he considered you a friend.
“He made people feel special, he cared deeply and he did everything he could to help people,” Hudgins said. “As we say goodbye, I imagine him wanting to share a hug with each and every one of you and saying, ‘Goodbye dear friend, I love you and I’ll be keeping up with you.’”
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