Honoring a Hero
Statue of the late World War II
veteran Heilman to be dedicated
The May 29 event at the History Center
to be an all day affair
LA GRANGE, Ky. (May 2021) – E. Bruce Heilman knew he had met the girl of his dreams when Betty Dobbins surprised him with the gift of her own piece of chocolate pie after telling him students were only allowed one piece of pie at the cafeteria. They were both students at Campbellsville (Ky.) Junior College. They were soon married in 1948.
Fifty years later, Betty had another surprise for Bruce: a red Harley Road King Classic motorcycle. She told her husband that he was finally old enough to have a motorcycle. That was the beginning of Heilman’s travels throughout the United States on that motorcycle to raise funds and support for higher education, Gold Star families and veterans. To achieve his goal of riding in all 50 states, he even rode a borrowed Harley while visiting Hawaii.
On May 29, the legacy of Heilman (1926-2019) will be honored with the dedication of a specially commissioned sculpture, “Road Warrior,” by Louisville sculptor Wyatt L. Gragg. The dedication at 1 p.m. will begin with a motorcycle procession and music provided by the 202nd Army National Guard brass quartet. The day will be filled with activities to honor Heilman and all veterans, especially World War II veterans.
Louisville, Ky., sculptor Wyatt L. Gragg displays early clay elements of his statue of the late Dr. E. Bruce Heilman that will be dedicated in
La Grange, Ky., on May 29..
The celebration will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Oldham County History Center, 106 N. Second Ave., in La Grange Ky.
Gragg, 73, created the sculpture for the History Center using the lost-wax technique to create a final bronze statue and cast by Falls Art Foundry in Louisville. A Harley owner himself, Gragg had participated in one of the fundraising rides.
“I really got to know him – to see his smile and shake his hand,” Gragg said. “It was a great project. It made me proud to be part of it.”
The statue is designed with the Harley kickstand down. Heilman is seated without his helmet on, his smiling face in full view. There is space on the back of the bike for a photo op. “I hope everyone will hop on and spend a few minutes with a hometown hero,” Gragg said.
Other special features of the day include Patriotic Quilts – a display by the Log Cabin Quilters, a display of preserved military vehicles by the Kilroy Chapter of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, and a special concert by the Ladies of Liberty at 2:30 p.m. Families are encouraged to bring lawn chairs for the program and concert.
Special guests will include Gold Star Families, Bluegrass Honor Flight Program, the Heilman family, representatives of the University of Campbellsville and the College of the Ozarks. The History Center Museum will be open for guests to enjoy the World War II exhibit. Additional family fun options are available at the Dahlgren Barn. Food trucks will be on site throughout the day.
Nancy Theiss, executive director of the Oldham County History Center, first met Heilman when he came to visit the World War II exhibit there. She learned that he was born into a tenant farming family in Smithfield, Ky., and then raised in nearby Ballardsville. He had hoped to grow up to be a truck driver, but the war changed his plans. He dropped out of school at the age of 17.
“He said that he was tired of getting up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows, so he joined the Marines, hoping to be able sleep longer,” said his daughter, Bobbie Heilman Murphy.
He served in the Pacific Theatre during the war. Heilman was very interested in the World War II exhibit at the History Center and became a dedicated supporter. He stopped to visit the Center and talk with Theiss whenever he was in the area. Theiss was able to interview Heilman as part of the Oral History of World War II project. Theiss said, “When I talked with Dr. Heilman about doing the motorcycle statue, he said, ‘Now you’ve got my attention.’ ”
Photo courtesy of Campbellsville College
The late Dr. E. Bruce Heilman was a college professor and administrator after serving in World War II.
After the war ended, jobs were scarce for the returning soldiers. Heilman used the GI bill to attend Campbellsville Junior College and Peabody School for Teachers in Nashville. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and later a Ph.D. from Peabody College. After graduation, he taught at Belmont University, Kentucky Wesleyan College and Peabody College. He held administrative roles at Kentucky Wesleyan, Georgetown College, Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University) and Kentucky Southern College (now part of the University of Louisville). At age 40, he was recruited to serve as the president of Meredith College in North Carolina. He served there from 1966-1971, when he was recruited to serve as the president of the University of Richmond (Va.). He continued in that role from 1971-1986 and again in 1987-1988. He was then appointed as chancellor of the university, serving until his death in 2019.
That anniversary bike from Betty had rekindled his earlier love of motorcycles. He was unstoppable. He generated attention and support everywhere he traveled. In 2007, he traded that well-worn motorcycle for a new Marine Edition Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic motorcycle, a limited edition only sold to veterans that year. In 2014 at the age of 87, he completed a solo trip from Richmond to Alaska, escorted by many veterans on motorcycles along the way.
In 2015 and 2016, Heilman traveled round trip from Richmond to California to promote World War II veterans. The American Legion in each state arranged to have Legion riders meet him at the state line and escort him in a motorcycle caravan across each state. Heilman also served as the spokesperson for the Greatest Generation Foundation. When he visited battlefields, he hosted tours, including students and veterans of all ages. Those former soldiers found strength and healing as they shared their experiences.
Still riding, traveling and speaking to groups just weeks before his death, Heilman never quit. He was confident he would beat his third cancer diagnosis. Instead, he died just 17 days later, on Oct. 19, 2019. His well-traveled Harley will be on display at the History Center on May 29 and then will finally will find a permanent home in Campbellsville University.
“It will be a focal point on the second floor in the future Heilman Welcome Center,” said Benji Kelly, vice president of Development at Campbellsville University. “It will be enclosed in a glass case, near windows overlooking a view of the chapel.”
Students and alumni will be able to say, “Meet me at Dr. Heilman’s motorcycle.”
The May 29 at the Oldham County History Center will follow the current CDC guidelines, including mask requirements, crowd control and social distancing. Additional information is available at www.oldhamkyhistory.com and on Facebook.
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