E. Bruce Heilman’s Oct. 19 death at age 93 came as a surprise to some members of his family, even though the Baptist and former University of Richmond president was recently diagnosed with bone cancer.
“We didn’t expect that,” daughter Bobbie Heilman Murphy said of her father’s sudden passing. Son Tim Heilman explained their father had been very busy and active until recently, and that he had a history of overcoming major health challenges.
“It’s the third time he had cancer and he beat it the first two times,” Tim Heilman said.
“He thought he’d live to be 100, and we all did, too,” he said.
The siblings conceded that their father had a penchant for doing – and saying – the most surprising things throughout his life. Routinely riding around the country on a motorcycle – while in his 80s – was the tip of the iceberg.
It was on full display during an interview with Baptist News Global in 2014.
“I met Franklin Roosevelt and I danced with Bette Davis at the Hollywood Canteen (in the 1940s)” Heilman told BNG. “I introduced Billy Graham to 60,000 people in Copenhagen one time.”
Most facts about Heilman’s life are jaw-dropping, especially when considering he was born in 1926 to Kentucky tenant farmers. His early dreams included being a truck driver.
But the outbreak of World War II took him in a different direction. He dropped out of school at 17 to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in the Pacific Theater of Operations and nearly lost his life in a plane crash on Iwo Jima, a volcanic island where some 7,000 of his fellow Marines perished. He later walked through the radiation-laced dust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at war’s end.
After his discharge, Heilman used the GI Bill to pursue an education that led to a career in higher education administration.
Success came quickly and naturally. At 40, he was tapped to be the president of North Carolina’s Meredith College, where he served 1966-1971. He showed instant prowess as a fundraiser, completing a three-year campaign to build six buildings on campus. He helped strengthen governance and launched a new giving fund.
He remained an asset to the college after leaving Meredith.
“As a friend, I have been inspired by his stamina, clear sense of mission (both professional and personal), and unwavering loyalty to family, friends, and causes that sustained him and made a difference in our nation and world,” Jo Allen, a later president of the school, said in a college statement.
Heilman’s achievements drew the attention of the University of Richmond, where he served as president 1971 to 1986 and again as interim from 1987 to 1988 – after which he served as chancellor until the end of his life.
“Dr. Heilman’s leadership came at a critical time in the University’s history,” University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher said in an open letter shared online.
The university had just received a $50 million gift which Heilman leveraged to inspire even more substantial giving to the university, Crutcher said.
“Dr. Heilman managed the influx of these new funds with great vision, elevating Richmond’s aspirations” and ushering in a wave of new construction, Crutcher said.
As chancellor, Heilman was an invaluable and generous friend, Crutcher added.
“He was a daily presence on campus, a beloved guest and frequent speaker at University events, and a personal friend to countless alumni across generations,” he said.
Heilman was equally generous with his alma mater, Campbellsville University in Kentucky, where his son serves as director of development.
Heilman, a 1949 alumnus, later served as leader of its Board of Trustees and as a fundraiser, educator and counselor, President Michael V. Carter said in a statement. He also served on other boards, including the Baptist News Global board of directors.
A number of campus facilities bear the Heilman name, including the E. Bruce Heilman Student Complex and the Betty Dobbins Heilman House, a meeting facility named after his late wife.
“Many meetings about plans for the university were held in the house with Dr. Heilman at the helm advising us on how to proceed,” Carter said.
‘I would get these faxes’
While Heilman was a superb university administrator and fundraiser, he was never tied to a desk. In fact, if he was tied to anything, it was the Patriot edition Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic, given to him by his wife for their 50th wedding anniversary.
Anyone he ever worked with him can testify to that.
“When I applied for this position, I was told they could not schedule the interview because he was on a motorcycle trek across the country,” said Joy Caporale, an administrative coordinator at the University of Richmond and Heilman’s assistant the past 6 1/2 years.
During that time, she said, Heilman was frequently away on road trips around the nation. In 2014, he rode from Virginia and Alaska and back, making frequent fellowship and fundraising stops along the way.
In all his rides, he hit all 50 states and covered well over 100,000 miles, Tim Heilman said.
And he conducted his business with Caporale the best way he could.
“I would just get these faxes from hotels or he would dictate over the phone and would e-mail or fax corrections,” she said. “His mind was always working.”
Of course, a man in his 80s and 90s riding a Harley Davidson generated plenty of media interest. And that was the point, because Heilman used the trips to promote two of his favorite causes – the institutions of higher learning that that he loved, and veterans.
“When he was planning his trip to Alaska, he gave me a list of his stops and asked me to find alumni along the way,” Caporale said. “He even met with alumni in Fairbanks, Alaska.”
He used the bike for local rides with church and veterans motorcycle groups and on other occasions as the spokesman for the Greatest Generation Foundation.
Through that organization he led battlefield tours in Europe and the Pacific and facilitated meetings between older veterans and those wounded in recent conflicts.
“They will talk to each other and both experience healing,” Heilman explained in a 2014 BNG profile about him.
And there was a little thrill-seeking in the rides, too.
“I have lived through the Great Depression and World War II – I find if I don’t have a little challenge out there, life gets a little dull,” he said in the article.
‘Every day as a new adventure’
Actually, Heilman was as passionate about his faith as he was about other pursuits.
“He established the office of the chaplaincy during his presidency,” University of Richmond Chaplain Craig Kocher said.
“It was important to him. He went out and raised a lot of money to support chaplaincy. He really believed the spiritual life was as important as the life of the mind,” he said.
Kocher became chaplain in 2009 and was immediately welcomed and guided by Heilman.
“He took me under his arm, spent a lot of time with me,” he said. “I saw him as a mentor and as a hero.”
The inspiration also came from how Heilman lived off campus.
“He just had a way of living – not recklessly – of embracing the goodness of every day, of seeing every day as a new adventure and continuing to learn and grow.”
A Harley with wings
And that’s how it was pretty much right up to the last day of his life, Tim Heilman said.
In March, he was accompanied by his son on visits to Hawaii, Iwo Jima and other parts of Japan where he had been during World War II.
As recently as a month ago he rode his motorcycle home from Kentucky, Bobbie Heilman Murphy said.
Three weeks ago, he delivered a speech to students in Washington D.C. – that was after his Oct. 2 cancer diagnosis, she said.
But soon after he became weak and spent three days in the hospital before going into hospice. Even then he showed his characteristic Greatest Generation spirit.
“When the nurses would ask him if he was in pain, he would say ‘what’s pain when I watched my buddies get their legs blown off on Okinawa? How can I say I am in pain?’” she said.
In addition to Bobbie and Tim, Heilman is survived by daughters Nancy Heilman Cale, Terry Heilman Sylvester and Sandy Heilman Kuel, as well as 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. A 12th is due in March.
His wife, Betty Dobbins Heilman, died in 2013. They married in 1948.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 27 in Cannon Memorial Chapel at the University of Richmond. Heilman’s ashes will be interred beside those of his wife in a private ceremony in the university columbarium.
Other memorials are planned.
Heilman’s Harley is slated to be the centerpiece of a display in a future building bearing his name at Campbellsville University, Tim Heilman said.
A statue of Heilman riding his motorcycle is planned by the Oldham County Historical Society in Kentucky.
Bobbie Heilman Murphy said those displays are especially appropriate for their dad.
“We told him he would be riding a Harley with wings up there,” she said.