World War II Vet At Home On A Hog

University Chancellor Rides Cross Country For The Greatest Generation

You can't classify Dr. Bruce Heilman as just a World War II veteran. That would not do him justice.

Even if you add that he is the only known member from The Greatest Generation who still is an avid Harley-Davidson motorcycle rider.

Heilman is much too complex a person to categorize with only one label. But that is part of his lifelong creed; live a great adventure or a series of them.

Heilman grew up on a farm in rural Kentucky during the Great Depression. He has seen combat as a U.S. Marine after being deployed to Okinawa during the Pacific campaign of World War II. The former high school drop-out rose through academia to the position of chancellor at a major university.

And every summer, if you are lucky enough, you might be able to meet Heilman as he drives thousands of miles across the nation on his customized hog speaking about The Greatest Generation, or meeting with University of Richmond alumni, or just grabbing a cup of coffee before another long day of riding.

"Why shouldn't an 84-year-old man who is healthy have a grand adventure?" Heilman asked. "It's just one of many because my life has been pretty much."

Heilman left Denver midday on Saturday. It was one of many stops that took him from his home in Richmond, VA to Milwaukee, to the large Harley rally in Sturgis, SD and down to Denver before the never-ending highway brings him back to his doorstep.

Heilman, who is the chancellor of the University of Richmond, gladly speaks for his generation -- a generation that is slipping away into the history books. But it wasn't always so. A bevy of philanthropic endeavors already fill much of his time.

"I talk about my era because there are enough of us deceased from the 17 million to about 2 million, we are a unique group," Heilman said.

During his journey from Sturgis, SD to Denver, he stopped along the way in Cheyenne, Wyo to speak at a Rotary Club. Heilman said he once belonged to the organization whose membership used to be dominated by veterans. During his speech, not one WWII vet was around; not even somebody his age was in attendance.

"I'm pretty unique in that regard, and not because I'm trying to prove I'm unique," Heilman said. "But I'm able to be healthy at age 84, and I'm able to ride a Harley and I like to ride a Harley.

"And I don't see any Harleys parked at the curb of these retirement homes. So I won't be going to one of those anytime soon."

Heilman first began his lifelong passion of riding in 1946. It started shortly after he returned from the war. He used to be one of a multitude of WWII vets on hogs. But time has pared that number down until only he remains.

"All those veterans have long since passed away or quit riding Harleys," he said. "So I'm kind of alone as a World War II vet. I am a little bit of a lone wolf."

So what keeps Heilman young? How does he maintain such alacrity in both mind and body? Heilman says for him staying busy is essential. Also his position at the university helps keep him young through association with its students.

"I have been going into the fall with freshman and graduating in the spring with seniors for 54 years," he said. "I've given many commencement addresses. ... I think it does keep me feeling I'm part of other generations."

To learn more about The Greatest Generation Foundation, visit their Web site.