While training as a Marine pilot in Florida, Thomas Heitmann wrote to his high school track coach with an ambitious intention.
“Understanding that my success in college and in the Marine Corps is much attributed to my experience in track,” the former track star wrote, “I would like to see the student runners afforded the same benefits.”
Heitmann’s high school, tiny St. Bede Academy, had no track. Yet, he earned two medals at state championships. Next time he was in Illinois, he wrote to coach Mike Skoflanc, Heitmann wanted to meet to get started on a fund-raising campaign to build a track at the school of about 270 students.
But Heitmann, 27, of Mendota, Ill., was killed in a training accident in 2011 in California, leaving his family wracked with grief and unsure what to do about his dream of a track. It was an estimated $500,000 project.
People of modest means, the Heitmanns took on the effort anyway. Six years after an unsteady start, the Capt. Thomas J. Heitmann Memorial Track was dedicated in a windy drizzle.
“I thought this day would never get here,” Heitmann’s father, Tom, told about 350 people gathered in the church at St. Bede, 90 miles southwest of Chicago. “When we got started, it looked like we’d be doing this the rest of my life.”
He thanked many people who contributed — through golf outings, motorcycle poker runs, raffles, and fish fries. He thanked St. Bede. “No matter how big or small,” Tom Heitmann said of donors, “thank you for believing in this dream.”
A few days earlier, Tom McGunnigal, St. Bede admissions director who was athletic director when Thomas Heitmann was a student, said “a lot of divine intervention” occurs “when you’ve a family like the Heitmanns and a family like St. Bede’s putting their faith and efforts together. It just gets done in some way.”
Tom Heitmann said people knew the family didn’t have “a big bucket of money to get this done. There are a lot of unsung heroes in this.”
Near the end of the dedication, senior Bret Dannis, a three-time state champion hurdler, stepped to the microphone and recalled a coach from St. Bede telling him four years ago that Dannis would have a real track to run on before he graduated. Dannis called the track “a blessing” and “a steppingstone” that will lead to more state medals, more sectional wins and draw track and field athletes to attend St. Bede.
“Many athletes have come and gone,” Dannis said, “but that’s not the case with Thomas.”
LEARNING TO RUN THROUGH THE WALL
Hazel-eyed and standing a lean 6 feet 2 inches tall, Thomas Heitmann was one of six children and known as the family comedian everybody wanted to be around. He was a football player and lifeguard who loved to whistle, sing and dance. He drew young and old to him with a mix of playfulness and discipline, a quick laugh, radiant smile and universal friendliness, friends and relatives said.
Tom Heitmann described his son as “the light in our family” who always put others before himself.
From the age of 6, Thomas Heitmann loved to run. At St. Bede, he was a fierce competitor who earned a fourth-place medal in the 800-meter race at the state finals in 2002 and a fifth-place finish in the 3,200-meter relays a year earlier. He started his leg of the race with the team in 10th place and got them to fifth by the time he finished, his father said.
Thomas Heitmann, who also holds two St. Bede records in track, did all that while training — like all St. Bede track athletes — in the school parking lot, and the halls, stairwells and basement of the main building.
Regardless of those conditions, Thomas Heitmann found strength from running, those close to him said, and used to talk about how track taught him to push himself. Those lessons were invaluable at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and in the Marines, he told people.
“You had to put your time in, work hard, and when you did that, you learned to run through the wall,” his father said. “Thomas learned that in track.”
SADNESS AND REASSURANCE
Thomas Heitmann’s favorite movie was “Top Gun,” and even as a little boy, he dreamed of becoming a pilot, relatives said.
A year after graduating from St. Bede in 2002, he decided he wanted to become a Marine pilot and enrolled at Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, Pa., then earned a scholarship to Embry-Riddle.
He became a Marine in 2008, trained in Virginia, Texas, Florida and finally at Camp Pendleton in California, where he was learning to fly helicopters.
Late on the night of Sept. 19, 2011, Tom Heitmann was preparing for bed in his Mendota home when two Marines knocked on the door. His son, they told him, had been killed shortly after noon when the helicopter he was piloting crashed. He had nearly completed his 26 weeks of training.
Killed with Heitmann was his trainer, Capt. Jeffrey Bland, 37, of Champaign. Investigators determined that a red-tailed hawk struck the aircraft, shattering a control line to the main rotors. In seconds, the helicopter broke into three pieces and plummeted to the earth.
Tom Heitmann had to break the news to his wife, Mary, and call one of his daughters, who called other siblings. The family remembers spending hours on the phone sobbing.
The track decision came to them a few days later at Thomas Heitmann’s wake, when his high school coach, Mike Skoflanc, told the family of Heitmann’s intentions. After some debate, the Heitmanns decided reaching that goal for Thomas might help them process their grief and allow them to “do something to not let Tommy die,” his sister Rachel Christensen told the Tribune in 2016.
St. Bede partnered with the family, donating about 7 acres on campus and reaching out to other prospective contributors. The family organized six annual “Swing for a Dream” golf outings, which collected about $25,000 a year.
Rachel Christensen produced a moving mini-documentary about Heitmann and the effort to build the track, which drew about $20,000. Media coverage of the effort brought additional attention and contributions, including a sizable donation from Gill Athletics Inc. in Champaign.
Early last fall, crews broke ground. Several weeks later, the all-weather, rubberized track was in place and athletes began informal workouts even before it was striped.
Now, the 400-meter Capt. Thomas J. Heitmann Memorial Track is fully marked. Inside the oval are two long jump/triple jump runways with sand pits, a pole vault runway, shot put and discus areas, and soon, a soccer field of natural grass. The school has plans for bleachers, digital timing equipment and a concession stand.
St. Bede Abbot Philip Davey said the track is an example of “God bringing life from death.” The dream of the track became reality because Heitmann passed it on to others, he said.
“While there is always that element of loss,” Davey told those at 10 a.m. Mass, people must also trust that God is working out his purpose in “mysterious ways.”
In late fall and early winter, athletes started running on the unfinished track. A regular visitor during and after construction, Tom Heitmann chatted with several of them, conversations that left him sad but reassured about his son.
One runner said he wished the track had been built after he’d graduated.
“The coaches got me running like crazy now,” Tom Heitmann recalled the boy saying. Heitmann laughed.
A second runner told him something different. The boy said he now understands what it means to run through the wall.
The track and Thomas Heitmann taught him that, the runner said.