It has become an annual rite of spring: waiting to hear where Bruce Heilman will ride his Harley this year.
The University of Richmond?s chancellor and former president, who turns 87 in July, has made it a tradition in recent years to put on his leathers and head out on the open road on his motorcycle.
He?s traveled to California and back, ridden to a motorcycle rally in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and journeyed around the circumference of the United States. Each trip has been a celebration of another rung on his birthday ladder and in honor of his fellow World War II veterans, whose numbers are rapidly dwindling. Few are spending their twilight years as Heilman is ? on a Harley.
Where to this year?
The six interior states he?s missed on previous jaunts, which, when he?s done, will mean he and his motorcycle have traveled in each of the contiguous 48 states, leaving him the goal of riding in Alaska and Hawaii before he turns 90.
At this stage of life, he said, it?s good to have a long-range goal.
?When you?re a baby, you anticipate that bottle, when you?re a little older you anticipate Christmas,? Heilman said the other day as we ate lunch at the UR dining hall named in his honor. ?You anticipate going to school, college, getting married. It?s all part of life. You always have something ahead of you to anticipate. It stimulates your whole being.
?When we get older, we quit doing that. We wake up in the morning and wonder if we?re going to get through the day. We sit on the porch or sit in front of the TV. I?m not cut out that way. There needs to be something I can anticipate. My motorcycle ride is something I anticipate all year. I thoroughly enjoy it, and then I spend the next year telling everybody about it.?
By the time you read this, Heilman will be in Kentucky on his way west, but his trip isn?t just about cruising through the countryside. He timed his visit to Kentucky, for instance, to attend a board meeting at Campbellsville University, his alma mater.
In addition to his regular motorcycle trips, he serves on no fewer than a dozen boards across the country. The man stays busy, which is also part of that anticipation thing.
?I don?t have time to think about whether I feel bad,? he said.
In fact, he will hit the pause button on his journey when he reaches Las Vegas, park his bike and fly home to attend to business that can?t wait. He?ll fly back to Vegas, resume his trip and plans to be home again by mid-May.
Two questions people often ask me about Heilman and his Harley adventures are:
How does he stay in shape?
Isn?t it dangerous?
He used to lift weights occasionally, he said, but he doesn?t have time for that, so he?s on an ?exercise by accident? plan: He walks stairs instead of taking elevators, keeps moving on airport escalators, eats smartly. It helps, of course, that he has been blessed with good health.
As for the risk of what he does, he acknowledges the inherent danger of riding a motorcycle ? something he?s done much of his life ? but he also said he?s ?probably the safest motorcycle rider anywhere.? He rode 9,200 miles last year and ?never even came close to any kind of accident.?
He doesn?t ride at night, avoids narrow country roads, sticks to interstate highways, maintains a safe distance from other vehicles and rides at a reasonable speed.
?I?m also not a teenager trying to prove anything to anybody,? he said. ?I bide my time. For me, it?s a journey.?
Back when he was a teen and might have had the inclination to prove something to somebody, Heilman didn?t have the time. His father was a tenant farmer in the Great Depression, and Heilman went to work at age 9 to help his family make ends meet. He milked cows before sunrise every morning and again in the afternoon, often catching up on his sleep in school. During the summers, he worked in the fields.
Then he joined the Marines, served in the war, came home and went to college. He was married and had six children before he finished graduate school.
Free time is not something he?s been familiar with.
?I saved my youth until later,? he said with a laugh.
On his first big trip, his wife of 66 years, Betty, and a daughter followed him as sort of a support crew. However, he discovered it was too dangerous trying to stick together on congested highways, so now he travels alone, though he?s rarely by himself.
He?s constantly meeting World War II vets and UR alums and starting conversations with lots of people who marvel at an old guy riding a 1,200-pound Harley. He gets a kick out of seeing their eyes grow wide when he tells them his age.
Basically, his philosophy comes down to this: ?I?m not waiting for the Grim Reaper to come along,? Heilman said. ?He?s going to have to come after me.?