At 86, University of Richmond chancellor Bruce Heilman continues to amaze.
By all accounts there are few people like Bruce Heilman
Friends and family say he's a hard-charging 86-year-old, working still as chancellor of the University of Richmond, a passionate husband, father and grandfather, active in Baptist life and serving as the spokesman for a national veterans organization.
continues to astonish old and young alike by riding around Richmond, Virginia, and the United States on his
Where friends and family differ is in explaining how this Depression-era high school dropout and Marine combat veteran does all this and more, and with an enthusiasm that's contagious and inspiring.
"I think he enjoys making an impact and making a difference," said Terry Heilman Sylvester, one of Heilman's
"It's his personality," said Westleigh Roberts, vice president of programs for The Greatest Generations Foundation, the organization Heilman serves as national spokesman.
offers no easy, simple explanation.
life is the sum total of experiences that began on a rural Kentucky farm during the Great Depression and meandered through World War II and subsequent decades raising a family, getting an education and helping thousands of others go to school.
"I learned a lot of discipline and I learned the truth," he
"My father would starve to pay a bill."
Faith was central to that discipline.
father was a farmer and licensed minister who invited preachers to dinner most Sunday nights.
They were very conservative theologically and Heilman
recalled the measure of a good Christian was in abstinence from certain behaviors.
"You didn't smoke but you raised tobacco, and you didn't drink but we sent all our corn to Virginia" to be used in manufacturing alcohol, Heilman
Faith evolves in Marines, combat
But it was in the military where Heilman
faith began to develop - and it started right away.
On the troop train taking him to California for Marine Corps basic training, Heilman
was disturbed by fellow recruits playing craps and cursing.
"I was almost sorry I was leaving home," he
wasn't sorry for the strength his
faith gave him to witness some of the most brutal killing of the war in places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
"They say there are no atheists in foxholes, well there were some," he
"If the wounded weren't calling on their mothers, they were calling on their faith."
often called on his
It helped him get through an assignment, shortly after the war ended, as the radio operator for commanders touring a defeated Japan.
"I was at Hiroshima and Nagasaki walking through those ashes," he
"No one mentioned radioactivity and we just kicked it around like dust."
Meeting Americans of different races and religions pushed Heilman
toward a moderate Baptist faith.
So did having a Marine friend who was very aggressive in his
"I learned there is a fine line between where you can live your life and where you insist others live it just like you do."
'Constant drive to better himself'
Heilman served another two years after the war and used his GI Bill money to attend Campbellsville University, the only school he found that let him attend without a high school diploma.
discovered a knack for academics and interest in providing education to others, and so began years of master's and doctoral studies and teaching and then a career in higher education administration.
He worked at a number of schools in different positions, including president of Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., before taking the presidency of the University of Richmond in 1966.
By then he
had acquired a reputation as a premier fundraiser.
It was through his
riding that Heilman
discovered another calling in life: connecting with World War II veterans during his
That's how he
got on the radar of The Greatest Generations Foundation
, Roberts said.
The organization sends veterans on trips to visit the battlefields where they fought decades before.
had been on such a trip to Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 2010.
Roberts said the group started hearing from veterans who said Heilman would make a great spokesman, especially given his long-distance motorcycle riding and outgoing personality.
was one of two guest speakers at the 2011 event and so impressed riders they want him back as honorary chairman for life.
plans to keep on going as a promoter of the University of Richmond
, veterans, his
faith and church (First Baptist, Richmond) and his
"I think of Helen Keller who said that life is either a grand adventure or it's nothing," Heilman