When he was 82, University of Richmond Chancellor, World War II veteran and proud Marine E. Bruce Heilman climbed aboard his Harley and, with flags waving and a do-rag tied around his gray hair, embarked on what became a 7,000-mile round trip across America.
For his 85th birthday, he rode to South Dakota for the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis.
To commemorate his 86th, coming up in July, he plans his longest trip yet: an 8,000-mile journey that will take him roughly around the perimeter of the continental United States. He leaves Friday.
Over lunch in the campus dining hall that bears his name, I asked him, in the nicest way possible, if he had lost his mind. He laughed.
Then he quoted Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
"How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use! As though to breathe were life."
Another of his favorite sayings is this one: "Remember, we don't quit doing things because we get old. We get old because we quit doing things."
But riding a motorcycle across America at 86?
"I'm not going to impress myself or anybody else by just taking a trip somewhere," he said.
Heilman is a Richmond fixture, having come here in 1971 as UR president and having served during a transformative era in the university's history. In 1988, he became the university's chancellor, which is sort of like retirement — except for Heilman it has been nothing of the sort.
He's still in his office every day — if he's not on the road, which he is an average of 10 days a month — and operates at full throttle with a full calendar, serving on a number of boards, raising money for this project or that, even making return trips to the Pacific where he served during World War II. On Tuesday, the day we met, he had started the day with breakfast at 4 a.m. in a Waffle House in Louisville, Ky., before catching a flight to Philadelphia and connecting with a flight home.
He's also a national spokesman for The Greatest Generation Foundation in Denver.
"When he called to tell me about this journey, I had to ask him to repeat what he just said," said Timothy Davis, president of the foundation. "I could not believe what I was hearing but thought to myself, 'If anyone can do a tribute like this, Dr. Heilman can.' "
Part of Heilman's mission for this trip is to raise awareness about and salute World War II vets, whose numbers are declining at a rapid rate. He's one of the younger ones, having joined the Marines in 1944 at age 17, a scrawny high school dropout from rural Kentucky who had no particular ambition other than he never wanted to milk another cow.
He plans to meet with veterans groups along the way, as well as UR alumni. In Milwaukee, he will meet with Harley-Davidson executives. As you might expect, they love him. He plans to garage his bike at least a couple of times during the trip, fly home to attend to other business he has going on, and then fly back to resume his journey. He figures he will complete the giant loop in July.
He plans to leave Friday morning from campus, with an escort by First Riders from First Baptist Church, and head south on Interstate 95 on his Harley Ultra Classic Electra Glide Patriot Edition — "it's the premier big dude," he says. He'll go as far as Jacksonville, Fla., then head west to California, up the Pacific coast, and then back across to Maine. He'll stick mostly to interstate highways, which he finds to be the safest way to travel.
Betty, his wife of almost 64 years who gave him a Harley for their 50th anniversary after he'd been without a bike since just after the war, is "accepting and understanding" of his pursuit, he said.
"He's in the Lord's hands," Betty told me. "He's so excited about it."
And philosophical. He loves getting out on the road, seeing the scenery, smelling the air, talking with people over cups of coffee at fast-food stops on the highway. A "real education," he calls it, and fulfilling.
When people quiz Heilman about his choice of hobbies, he said he always thinks of the blind and deaf Helen Keller, who once said, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."
"If we all look back and think hard, all of life is an adventure," he said. "It might not be as grand in some places as others, but … think of life in that sense, not as a burden, but as an opportunity."
Which brought him around to the bottom-line motivation for his upcoming trip.
"I've got a motorcycle, and the world's out there," Heilman said, "so I'll just ride."