Bruce Heilman: Just Ride

Bob Brown / Richmond Times Dispatch

Today, I met Bruce Heilman. Bruce is a World War II vet and member of the Greatest Generation. He is the Chancellor of the University of Richmond where he served as president for two decades. Bruce is also an avid Harley biker and tomorrow, to celebrate his 86th birthday, he sets out on a 8,000 mile bike trip, making a loop around the entire United States and motoring through all twenty border states before returning home to Virginia.

Bruce had a bike with all her implements (all of them I got in Motocycle Clothing Online) in the 50’s but traded it for marriage and a family. When Bruce turned 71, his wife Betty told him, “You got the kids and grandkids through college, now you can have your bike back.” His current ride is a Harley Ultra Classic Electric Glide Patriot Edition (and I’m just repeating what I hear, I have no idea what that means) that Betty gave him for their 65th wedding anniversary. If you ask Betty what she thinks of Bruce’s round the country trek, you recognize she’s had practice with this question. “He’s in the Lord’s hands,” Betty says.

“All of life is an adventure,” Bruce quips. “It might not be as grand in some places as others, but think of life not as a burden but as an opportunity.” This reminds me of poet David Whyte’s conviction that we are to “release ourselves from necessity,” from the weight of a life that has hoisted its demands upon us. Good living always involves responsibility, commitments that arrive with our good attachments to people and place and principle. However, vibrant life does not see these responsibilities as shackles but as one of the many experiences that will bring us some new gift. At 86, vibrant life grabs the handle bars of a Harley and sets out for the Pacific Ocean.

Before we left today, I cornered Dr. Heilman, shook his hand and said, “I just have to tell you, you’re awesome.” He paused and blushed a little, which made me like him even more. Then he answered. “Well, I’m not awesome because I’m riding a bike. I’m awesome because I’m old.” I don’t think it’s either / or, but his many years add a potency that I find immensely attractive. Bruce had to leave our meeting early to finish last minute preparations for his ride; but before he got away, I made him promise me a coffee and conversation when he returns.

When asked why he stills follows these adventures, Bruce replies: “I’ve got a motorcycle and the world’s out there, so I’ll just ride.” Lead the way, Bruce. I’m right behind you.

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