Joseph Conrad, the late 19th century author once wrote, "A man's real life is that accorded to him in the thoughts of other men by reason of respect or natural love."
Those words were never more on display than last Wednesday night at the Springfield Hilton where more than 200 friends and admirers of Robert J. "Bob" Heittman came to celebrate his life and contributions to the citizens of Fairfax County and Lee District.
As Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman summed it up, "Looking out on this crowd, only one thing we have in common, a great man with a small name, Bob."
He admitted, "For me, Bob was the closest thing a civilian will ever have to possessing my very own heat seeking missile. To arm it; all I ever had to do was to give Bob license to "be Bob."
May 19 would have been Bob Heittman's 67th birthday. But he died of a rare form of cancer on May 10, just nine days short of that event.
Bob and Elaine Heittman have been residents of the Windsor Park section of Franconia, Lee District since 1975. Heittman had dedicated nearly 30 years of volunteer service to Franconia, Lee District and Fairfax County in a variety roles. They encompassed everything from the Board of Directors of his Homeowners Association to County Transportation Commission and past chair, Land Use Advisory Committee.
He was a founder of both the Franconia Museum and the Laurel Grove School Museum. Heittman served as a member of the Fairfax County History Commission. As a renowned story teller himself, he was one of the initiators of Franconia Museum's "Story Swap" event.
As described in the announcement for Wednesday's celebration by his only son Rob, "This event is not to be a sad occasion. As he wished, it will be an evening to share refreshments and stories with friends and family."
Speaker after speaker came forward to relate his or her favorite "Bob story." But as Kauffman noted, "Bob's greatest trait was vision. He could just see more clearly than anyone else."
Kauffman attributed Heittman's lasting impact to what he called "the three R's of Bob: politicians relied on him; staff ran from him; and citizens rallied around him."
In honor of those traits, Kauffman presented a framed Fairfax County flags to Elaine Heittman and his son as a thank-you for all he had done for the citizenry of his adopted home.
AS NOTED BY Mount Vernon District Supervisor, Gerald Hyland, Heittman was a "transplanted New Englander," and a former member of the U.S. Air Force, as is Hyland. "There is no way that people from New England can sit by and let things just happen. He took that will and transplanted it to here," Hyland said.
"As I look back over my years of public service, Bob Heittman epitomized the perfect citizen volunteer. He made a difference in the Lee and Mount Vernon Districts. He left his footprints and heartprints all over Fairfax County," Hyland told the gathering.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald F. Connolly, another transplanted New Englander, told the crowd, "When you saw Bob coming down the aisle to talk to you, you knew you had to deal with whatever he wanted. His success will be his legacy."
His son Rob, a resident of Williamsburg, acknowledged, "By the time I was in high school he was completely entrenched in Lee District activities. And he got me involved. That was how we bonded as a father and son."
Rob also attested to his father’s love of storytelling. "He believed in the power of stories," Rob said. "I hope we can use tonight as a "Story Swap" about Bob."
Acknowledging the work of Debbie Wilson and Linda Waller, both members of Kauffman's staff, he thanked them for virtually organizing and managing the tribute to his father. "They were the ones who knew that we had to move this event to a large ballroom because of the crowd that would be coming," he said.
Throughout the room were photographs of Heittman's various endeavors and stages of his full and giving life. They depicted not only local endeavors but also his career in the U.S. Air Force, where he enlisted in 1954. He retired at the rank of master sergeant in 1975 as a graphic designer for Air Force Intelligence at the Pentagon.
AFTER RETURNING TO civilian status he went back to work for Pentagon intelligence. He formally retired from that role in 2000. In both careers he was renowned for his utilization of photographic techniques in developing solutions to a wide array of challenges.
Heittman was a recognized and respected specialist in transportation matters, advising local leaders on a variety of transportation initiatives including the Springfield Interchange Project and the Franconia-Springfield Parkway. That was brought home to the assembled audience by tributes from representatives of the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Thomas F. Farley, district administrator, summed up VDOT staff's admiration and respect for Heittman by saying, "Bob was not just a dedicated citizen, he was truly a friend. We will miss him immensely."
Throughout the three hour celebration of Bob Heittman's life and times, friends, neighbors, professional associates, state and local officials and politicians clustered throughout the ballroom swapping stories about "the great man with a small name."
But, in the end, it was Debbie Wilson who best summarized the evening when she kicked off the formal part of the program with, "Happy Birthday, Bob."