A Treasured Legacy

May 10, 2021

For Terry Heilman Sylvester and her daughters Natalie, Whitney, Hilary, and Carly (pictured L to R), continuing the legacy of Dr. E. Bruce Heilman means making it a priority to pay their blessings forward.

To be a Spider is to know the story of E. Claiborne Robins’ transformational $50 million gift—in its time, it was the largest single gift ever given to an American university by a living donor. But what came next?

To fulfill Mr. Robins’ vision of making Richmond the finest University of its kind, his incredible gift needed skillful management. Enter Dr. E. Bruce Heilman: Richmond’s 5th president, and the beloved patriarch of a multi-generational Spider family.

At the time of Mr. Robins’ gift, the University was in dire straits. Condemned dorm buildings, food service under review by the health department, and an unaccredited library were among UR’s mounting challenges. In order to fulfill Mr. Robins’ vision of making Richmond the finest institution of its kind, Dr. Heilman (a fundraiser at heart) knew that the inspiring $50 million would need to be just the beginning. “Six to eight months after I became president, I announced we were going to match the $50 million gift by raising another $50 million,” the late Dr. Heilman said in an interview with the alumni magazine. “To put that in context, the largest campaign in this University’s history had been $2 million or so. I told the board: if we can’t raise $50 million from everyone out there to match one family’s gift, then we’re fooling ourselves.”

Under Dr. Heilman’s leadership, the University set out to raise an additional $50 million; they ultimately raised more than $75 million, in less than their five-year time frame. Watching this—as a daughter, as a Richmond student, as a future fundraiser herself—was Dr. Heilman’s middle child, Terry. “With Claiborne's resources and my dad's vision and youth and capability for raising money…they were just a match made in heaven,” Terry said. “It was a lot of work, and from day one it was all about raising money, but it was an exciting time.”

Terry Heilman Sylvester is a firecracker; anyone who knows Terry is familiar with her infectious enthusiasm and radiant warmth. A 1976 Robins School of Business graduate, a former Trustee, the Director of Parent Philanthropy, and a parent to four Spiders, she lives and breathes UR. Her passion for the school is tireless; as her daughter Carly puts it, “she is a force of nature.” At Richmond, she continues her father’s work by securing support for the University and its students, and she is often reminded of the incredible progress UR has made since the 70s. “I walk around sometimes in amazement knowing that this was their dream,” she said. “And far more than they could have imagined at the time. There was a big celebration for Claiborne on [the 40th] anniversary of the gift and he stood up and said: I never believed I’d live to see my dream come true, and it has come true and more—and it just keeps getting better and better.”

Terry and her daughters all share a deep fondness for the University. Their family has always been close-knit, and Richmond—a place they hold dear—was often the backdrop of their connection. Terry and her husband David, B‘77 (also a Spider), moved to California in 1984, but Terry traveled to Richmond often for her work as a Trustee and then as a fundraiser. While she was in town, she and Dr. Heilman would spend hours in his favorite restaurants talking about their mutual love of fundraising and swapping stories. As UR students, Whitney, Hilary, Natalie, and Carly would stop by Dr. Heilman’s office near Boatwright Library to knock on his window and say hello. Dr. Heilman’s wife Betty would bake the girls brownies and drop off cases of Diet Coke to their dorm rooms. “My grandma was beside him the whole way, really… she was an incredible first lady for so, so many years,” Hilary said. “I think her measuredness really passed down to my family in how we approach things, whether it's faithfully giving…[or] really treating others the way they want to be treated…they were a dynamic duo.” When they needed to get away from the strain of academics for a little while, Whitney, Hilary, Natalie, and Carly knew their grandparents’ door was always open.

Dr. Heilman may have worn a suit so regularly that it prompted a young Natalie to ask Terry if he only owned one set of clothes, but his notable position as president and then chancellor never translated to arrogance or egotism. “[He was] always very, very humble and very interested in making people feel loved and known, and also just one of the most generous people that I’ve ever known,” Natalie said. “He never lived a big lifestyle, you would never know that he had saved anything and yet he gave millions of dollars away.. [he was] just a really funny, humble, and loving person.” This is a sentiment echoed often by the members of the family. “What we were all taught from the day we were born was that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of who they were, what they did, or what position they held,” Terry said.

Kindness, respect, and giving back to others were profoundly important to Dr. Heilman and Betty, and these values have clearly held fast throughout the generations below them. In addition to being a donor herself, Terry has raised more than $10 million through her work at the University. In their family, giving back isn’t an idea that’s questioned: it’s simply what you do. “We came from a very humble background. We didn't have a lot, but the one thing about giving our parents taught us from the day we were born is you could only keep 80% of everything you earned or were given,” Terry said. “So if given a dime, one penny would go to the church, one penny to savings, and the rest was yours to do with what you wanted. And believe me, we didn’t have too many dimes; however, it was the philosophy on which our commitment to giving was built.”

Whitney, Hilary, Natalie, Carly, and their husbands have each established a scholarship of their own at Richmond, continuing their family’s tradition of giving back. “My grandfather came from… [a] very poor family, as did my grandmother,” Whitney said. “Yet from the moment we could comprehend it, we understood that they felt that giving back was a big part of what you do…My grandparents have always been extremely generous with us, and with other people, and I think having and witnessing that legacy, it was like a no brainer [for us].” Terry’s daughters looked up to their grandparents tremendously, but they also had her example to go by. “She's just been a great role model,” Carly said. “Obviously all my sisters and I look up to her and think the world of her and my grandfather, and want to follow in those footsteps and give back.”

Terry, Whitney, Hilary, Natalie, and Carly feel that Richmond has given them so much, and they are keen to return the favor. “We feel blessed, and in turn want to share those blessings with those that are either less fortunate or organizations that need that money to do good in the world,” Carly said. “We’re firm believers that when you give good away, good comes back to you.”

 

 

The endowed funds established by Terry Heilman Sylvester and her daughters will continue to grow throughout the years, having an exponential impact on Richmond students. To learn more about establishing a named fund at Richmond, please contact donorrelations@richmond.edu.