By Nicholas van der Meer, Campus Times staff writer
CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. – Dr. E. Bruce Heilman and Betty Dobbins Heilman, his late wife, are no strangers to Campbellsville.
Both are alumni of the university and are known for a number of sizable donations to its benefit. While Bruce is certainly the more prolific of the two, Betty is no less remembered.
She was born Betty June Dobbins on Aug. 9, 1928, in Louisville, Ky. and was the oldest of six female children.
Her late teens were spent filling in for her mother who died of cancer when she was 18. Her father worked as a railroad mechanic.
As a result of having to serve as the caretaker of her siblings, she was thrust into adulthood early in life.
Her father would eventually place her three younger sisters in an orphanage due to increasing neglect and financial problems.
Despite a poor family situation, she maintained a positive view. In Bruce’s book, “An Interruption That Lasted a Lifetime,” she said, “I’ve always enjoyed the career of being a full-time mother and wife. I have always found my fulfillment in family.”
Her life was defined by a devout faith in Christian beliefs. Sandra Kuehl, one of her daughters, describes her faith as “not needing evidence.”
Kuehl said, “She believed that everything good that came to her was given by God. The tragedies you had only made your faith stronger … that you can solve any problem with the love of God. She believed in giving unconditional support, regardless of belief or creed. Her biggest gift to this world was that she touched everyone everywhere she went. She reached out and helped so many, never expecting anything in return. She would be incredibly happy to see where her financial assistance has taken Campbellsville.”
Her local Baptist ministry would provide her a scholarship to attend Campbellsville, which at the time was a junior college. There she was well known for her singing voice and work with church outreach.
Eventually, she would meet Bruce at Campbellsville during one of her shifts in the dining hall. They would begin dating after she broke protocol and offered him her own piece of pie, because each student was only allowed one piece. They would marry on Aug. 27, 1948, with former president Dr. John Carter presiding over their wedding.
Bruce would send his parents a rather interesting description of Betty during the early days of their courtship: “I have sure run up against trouble. I have got one of those girls that keep you guessing. She’s a nice little gal but every time I get around her my heart skips a couple of beats … Guess I’m getting ready to have my heart broken again, but it’s getting tough by now.”
They would remain married for 65 years until her death in 2013 at the age of 85.
Bruce’s career would see him be a part of a number of educational institutions, most notably as presidents of Meredith College from 1966 to 1971 and the University of Richmond from 1971 to 1988, the latter of which he currently serves as chancellor.
He is also a current member of the Campbellsville University, College of the Ozarks and Marine Corps Military Academy boards of trustees, as well as one of the chief spokespersons of the Greatest Generation Foundation.
Though perhaps on the sideline over the course of her husband’s career, Betty would be no less active or influential.
Bobbie Heilman Murphy, one of her four daughters, said, “Mom was his biggest supporter. She was a stay-at-home mom and often entertained for Dad’s coworkers. She always kept in mind the needs of the faculty, staff, students, trustees and alumni/alumnae. She handled her responsibilities with composure and good humor while totally at ease but quietly in charge.”
Bruce said, “She served for 21 years as First Lady and served just as well as, if not better than, any First Lady of any university. She was admired greatly for her leadership in higher education.”
In 1988, a new president’s home for Campbellsville University was dedicated in her honor. Then-president Kenneth W. Winters said he was “honored, very honored” to name the house after Betty.
Her son, Tim Heilman, works as director of development for the university.
“She was the original and maybe the last of the real ‘first ladies’ of the college and university landscape. She was so much a part of my father’s success and the success of both Meredith University and the University of Richmond,” Tim said.
Current staff at the university are no less fond in their remembrance of her. Dr. Michael V. Carter, the current president, speaks very highly of her character.
“She was the epitome of a southern lady. She was supportive of her husband, but also had her own mind and thoughts,” Carter said.
“She was very wise, always kind and gracious. You always looked forward to seeing her. One of the real treats of coming to Campbellsville is getting to meet them (the Heilmans). It really has been a blessing.”
Benji Kelly, vice president for development, is heading a dedication in honor of her memory.
Of his own experiences with her, Kelly said, “She was always encouraging and positive, always very grateful to be in a position to help. Even though her husband received the majority of the fanfare, she was the glue that kept everything together.”
Carter said donors were very eager to contribute to funding the new Betty Dobbins Heilman Student Wellness Center.
“When they heard that her name was going to be on the building they said, ‘Yes, I will give in her honor.’ People that knew her felt encouraged and very gratified to make the gift.”
The dedication will be July 13 at 11 a.m. in Ransdell Chapel followed by a groundbreaking for the third building of the E. Bruce Heilman Student Complex, which will be called the E. Bruce Heilman Welcome Center. Members of the Heilman family will be invited as guests of honor.
Campbellsville University is a widely-acclaimed Kentucky-based Christian university with more than 12,000 students offering over 100 programs of study including Ph.D., master, baccalaureate, associate, pre-professional and certification programs. The university has Kentucky based off-campus centers in Louisville, Harrodsburg, Somerset, Hodgenville and Liberty with instructional sites in Elizabethtown, Owensboro and Summersville. Out-of-state centers include two in California at Los Angeles and Lathrop, located in the San Francisco Bay region. The website for complete information is www.campbellsville.edu.
Campbellsville University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to award certificates, associate, baccalaureate, masters and doctoral degrees. Contact the Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, Georgia 30033-4097 or call 404-679-4500 for questions about the status of Campbellsville University.