Singing lieutenant’s legacy lives on

Dan Heller, left, congratulates Mike Sorenson, recipient of the eighth annual Art Heller Employee Recognition Award, named for Dan’s father.

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.”
Art Heller

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.”

‘King Arthur’
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.”
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The Weinstein JCC will present the fifth annual Jazz in the Sukkah with Koontz and Kellner from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Enjoy light refreshments and great jazz tunes from some of RVA’s most talented musicians. Admission is free. For details, visit http://www.weinsteinjcc.org. Full text

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