Singing lieutenant’s legacy lives on
Beth Sholom award honors employee, resident ‘idol’
By Patty Kruszewski, Citizen Managing Editor 09/24/12
In his last 12 years of life, Art Heller coped with a debilitating stroke, a move from his lifelong home in New Jersey, and the stress of adjusting to serious health limitations and life in an assisted living facility and new town.
But he didn’t simply meet the challenge gracefully, say those who knew him. He excelled at his new life, won over an entire community of residents and employees in his new home, and went on to become an icon of the community who is still revered today.
Although the World War II veteran passed away in 2004 – on Veteran’s Day – his name still comes up frequently in conversations at Beth Sholom. From his stellar singing voice to his enthusiasm for baseball and his charismatic personality, Heller continues to live prominently in the memories of his Beth Sholom family.
“The staff at the home absolutely adored him,” says Arthur’s son, Dan. “He had a personality that was able to engage everyone.”
Heller recalls that when family members visited other residents of the home, and their own relatives were not doing well, they would seek out Art Heller to get the lift in spirits they needed.
“They’d stop and see my dad and just spend a few minutes, and then they’d tell me how good it made them feel,” says Heller. “He had that uncanny ability.”
What’s more, Art’s legacy lives on in the annual Arthur Heller Employee Recognition Award award, which his grateful family established both as a tribute to Heller and as an appreciative gesture to the staff members who helped make his life so enjoyable in his later years.
Heart of gold
This year’s award recipient, Mike Sorenson, has worked at Beth Sholom for 17 years in roles ranging from maintenance to night watchman to his current job as medical supplies coordinator. Deirdre Arnowitz, director of social work at Beth Sholom, says Sorenson is not only a deserving recipient, but one who has much in common with the award’s namesake.
“Mike is such a sweet man,” says Arnowitz. “He’ll do anything for anybody and he’s very kind to all the residents.”
Arnowitz adds that among the roles Sorenson has assigned himself over the years -- without being asked -- is caretaker of animals at the home.
“He loves cats and birds, and when we had a resident cat, Mike took care of her all the time,” says Arnowitz. “He took her to the vet and came back on weekends to feed her. He wanted to make sure the residents had a cat.”
When the cat died, Sorenson took care of subsequent pets, including birds. He would make sure the birds were covered at night, and took them to residents to keep overnight. “The residents did better because of his efforts,” says Arnowitz.
Arnowitz also points out that when feral cats became a problem outside the residential community, Sorenson found homes for all of them as well. On the job, says Arnowitz, Sorenson is known for his knack for fixing things, and often helps out in the rehabilitation department repairing wheelchairs.
“He just has a heart of gold,” says Arnowitz, “and an unassuming manner. He never wants attention for himself and was just flabbergasted to get the award.”
While Sorenson is reluctant to speak of himself, he lights up with a smile remembering Art Heller, whom he calls a “good man” with a talent for singing and playing the piano.
Arnowitz confirms Heller’s talent for entertaining, and cites a list of favorite songs he would sing, including “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
“We called him King Arthur,” says Arnowitz with a laugh. “He sang for every talent show and sing-along, and everyone followed along. I remember he also sang ‘Always’ to [his granddaughter] Erin.
“He had the most gorgeous blue eyes. He just melted us.”
Dan Heller notes that his father’s singing voice was something of a legend, and that he entertained the troops during the 1940s.
“There’s a picture of him singing to 10,000 troops in Louisville, Kentucky,” says Heller. “They called him ‘The Singing Lieutenant.’ But he was very modest, and other family members had to tell us about it.”
Heller says that after the war, his father apparently auditioned for a singing role, and ended up taking second place. The man he lost out to was Dennis Day, who later went on to fame as Jack Benny’s sidekick.
“I tell my children,” says Heller, ‘If there had been an American Idol in the 1940s, your grandpa would have been in the top ten.’”
‘He meant so much’
But it was Art Heller’s demeanor, even more than his talent for entertaining, that stands out in the memories of those who knew him.
“He was so appreciative,” says Arnowitz, “and so amenable to everyone. Art was just the nicest, kindest, smartest – and he would share about his life. I always assigned social worker interns to him, because he was such a great guy to get to know.”
Dan Heller tells the story of an encounter about two years after his father died, when he was in line with his son at a fast food restaurant and noticed a woman staring at him.
Eventually the woman approached him, saying, “You’re Mr. Heller’s son.” She told Dan that she had worked at Beth Sholom years ago, and that in her 25-year career working in nursing homes, his father was the “nicest man I ever met.”
“Then,” recalls Dan, “she takes out her wallet and shows me his obituary. She looked at me and said, ‘He meant so much to me.’”
Hearing that from a professional with that much experience in the field, says Heller, told him that establishing the employee recognition award was clearly the right way to recognize his father.
Since establishing the award (which he discussed with his father before his death), Heller has noticed that the idea seems to generate other ideas for good turns. One day, Heller happened to mention the award while on the golf course, telling his fellow players how it honored not only his father’s memory but also the unsung heroes who work at Beth Sholom. One golfer, who had just lost his son in an accident, was moved to donate gift cards to all of the award recipients in his son’s memory.
It’s also tradition that as part of the annual awards ceremony, previous recipients join the celebration and are given corsages and gift certificates. The current winner, surrounded by residents, staff, and friends of the community, receives a cash award in addition to the recognition.
The ceremony never fails to move Deirdre Arnowitz and members of the Heller family (Dan, wife Nancy, and children Ben and Erin – all of whom have volunteered at the home for years) – or to elicit memories and story-telling about “King Arthur.”
“I am so glad he lived here 12 years,” says Arnowitz. “We were so lucky to have him.”
By Holly Speck and Hannah Matheson, Capital News Service 02/24/2017 General AssemblyGeneral Assembly 2017
Senior students at Glen Allen High School will get a personal touch when studying elections with their AP government teacher.
That teacher, Schuyler VanValkenburg, recently announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for the 72nd District seat in the House of Delegates. If he earns the nomination, he will run against Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, who has been unopposed for 10 years.
VanValkenburg, a 2004 University of Richmond alumnus who majored in history, is running for office for the first time. Although he has lived in Richmond since he began his undergraduate studies, aside from one year spent in Seattle, he said he never felt it was his time to run. > Read more.
School and business leaders from around the region, including (pictured, from left) Simon Hodges of Dominion Resources, Daphne Swanso(president of Junior Achievement of Central Virginia) and Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas, gathered at Libbie Mill Library Feb. 23 for the Junior Achievement Finance Park construction kickoff. > Read more.
Finishing a day early, House and Senate negotiators agreed on a budget Wednesday that includes employee pay raises and more money for K-12 education and mental health.
The negotiators presented their budget to their fellow lawmakers in time for the required 48-hour review, which could be completed by Friday night with a chance to adjourn their 2017 session before Saturday’s target date.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate praised the spending plan’s conservative fiscal policies. > Read more.
A section of Charles City Road, from Lewis Road to South Airport Drive, will be closed beginning Sunday, Feb. 26 as part of a project to widen and improve the road.
The Henrico County Department of Public Works expects the closure to last for a few weeks.
Westbound traffic on Charles City will be detoured around the work zone by way of South Airport, Seven Hills Boulevard and Laburnum Avenue. > Read more.
By Rodrigo Arriaza and Maura Mazurowski, Capital News Service 02/24/2017 General AssemblyGeneral Assembly 2017
Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union called on Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Wednesday to veto Republican-backed legislation banning local governments in Virginia from designating themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. They also said they plan to fight federal and state policies that they believe violate immigrants’ rights.
At a news conference, representatives of the ACLU of Virginia and other civil rights organizations criticized anti-immigrant measures passed by the General Assembly. They also condemned the recent spike in deportation raids on immigrant communities in Virginia by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as President Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries. > Read more.
St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.
Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.
Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
Given the warm weather lately, Saturday’s RVA Polar Plunge Winter Fest, benefiting Special Olympics Virginia, might actually be enjoyable! Other weekend events you’re sure to enjoy include the 14th annual Richmond Kids Expo at the Richmond Raceway Complex, the Richmond Symphony and The Taters in concert at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, and the Richmond Ballet Minds in Motion Team XXL performing at the Henrico Theatre. This is also the last weekend to check out HATTheatre’s production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob.” For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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CalendarLibbie Mill Library will host a 3D Printing Workshop for students in grades 5-12 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Learn how to create your own 3D designs, download pre-made 3D models, and see an object being printed on the library’s Ultimaker2 3D printer. Bring a thumb-drive so you can save your design. Registration is required. For details, call 501-1940 or visit http://www.henricolibrary.org. Full text