A Tribute to Max Heller
At Max Heller’s funeral a few weeks ago, his daughter Francie urged the many mourners, “Don’t cry because it ended,” referring to her father’s life, “smile, because it happened.”
Max Heller happened to Greenville.
What are the odds that a Jewish Austrian immigrant would find his way from Europe during that continent’s darkest days – bypassing New York, Miami and New Jersey – and make his home in South Carolina, in the then-small city of Greenville? Great, I suspect. But there is no denying that Max Heller’s presence helped make Greenville what it is today, nationally recognized as one of the most delightful, welcoming, and well-rounded places in the country to live.
Max Heller’s personal history is the stuff of legends, stories the likes of which we don’t hear much anymore. Born in 1919 in one of Europe’s most beautiful and civilized capital cities, Vienna, Max Heller found himself having to cope with frightening world changing events at an early age.
In 1938, as Nazi Germany’s aggression amped up, Hitler overtook Austria and persecution against Jews reached fever pitch. Literally overnight, young Heller realized that he needed to seek safety far from that imminent threat. A year earlier, according to Furman University’s library sources, he had gone out dancing and purely coincidentally, had met five young women from Greenville while they were on the then-standard for upper class young women “European Tour.” Heller exchanged addresses with one of those women, Mary Mills, whom he would refer to in the future as “his angel.”
As Nazis descended on Vienna, Heller wrote Miss Mills, asking if she could help him get out of Austria into the United States by sponsoring him in America.
Mary Mills, unsure of how to deal with this request, went to her father, who in turn suggested she ask Shepherd Saltzman, a Jewish man who owned the Piedmont Shirt Company in Greenville. Saltzman reportedly said, “If you (Mary) a Christian are trying to help a Jew, how can I not help?”
Several weeks later, Heller received his answer in Austria, and he and his sister Paula both came to America.
Not one to waste time, Max Heller arrived in South Carolina and began working at the garment factory, as janitor and stock boy. As the story goes, Shepherd Saltzman took the young Austrian out to lunch, but Heller would not allow his boss and sponsor to pay, telling him, “As soon as I am able to take you to lunch, then you can take me.”
As love stories go, Max and his wife Trude’s is a romance made for the ages. They first met in Austria at a resort, when Max was 18 and Trude was just 14. He told her then he would marry her someday. Fortunately, Trude was also able to immigrate to America and in 1941, Max went to meet her in New York, seeing her for the first time since they were both teenagers. They married a year later.
Max was soon promoted at work, becoming manager, later starting his own business, Maxon Shirt Company. He prospered, then sold the company in 1968 to devote himself to public service and pay back the people of South Carolina for their support and kindness to him and his family.
Longtime friend Gene Covington says now, “His sense of gratitude for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was awe-inspiring to me. Even now I get tears in my eyes when I think of him, he was such a Godly man in every thought, word and deed.”
Max Heller successfully ran for Greenville City Council in 1968, and in 1971 became Mayor of Greenville where he concentrated on creating affordable housing. Later, his focus widened to include the revitalization of downtown, beginning with Main Street’s revival. Under his leadership, Main Street became pedestrian friendly and European village-like with street lights, green spaces and colorful flower planters everywhere.
In 1979 Heller’s second term as Greenville Mayor ended, but his desire for public service did not. He ran for Congress from the Fourth District as a Democrat against Carroll Campbell. The Campbell campaign sent out polls asking voters whether they would rather vote for a native South Carolinian or a Jewish immigrant.
Heller lost the election, but never held a grudge or replied negatively in any aspect. His friend Champ Covington says now, “He had a rough go politically, but he never slapped back, he never got even, he never responded in a negative tone to anyone. Max had a saying he liked, my father’s actually. It goes like this; ‘you never have to apologize for what you didn’t say.’”
Instead of crawling away to lick his wounds, Max Heller went on to play an even bigger statewide part in business development when Governor Richard W. Riley appointed him as Chair of the South Carolina State Development Board. He also played a major role in the recruitment of big and diverse businesses, including Michelin North America and Digital Computer. For the first time, during Heller’s tenure, state business recruitment reached the $1 billion mark.
At his passing, even those who would oppose him politically paused to reflect and honor him for his public service. US Senator Jim DeMint says, “Our state has lost a great leader with the passing of Max Heller. I will always remember Mayor Heller as a man with a generational vision for what Greenville could become. But, more than that, he was a man of action who rallied community leaders to make those ideas reality. His tenacity set downtown Greenville on its current path of success and spurred the economic investments that have brought jobs and tourism to the Upstate. The people of Greenville and the state owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Heller has been called “The Father of Greenville” and a man of “vision, integrity, and compassion,” but despite Heller’s long list of accomplishments and awards, his family, especially his wife Trude, was his first love.
Champ Covington recalls a day when Heller spoke to Covington’s prayer group. “Max told them, ‘Being Jewish, to me heaven is here on earth. But if there is a heaven, I hope I can go there when I die.’”
Writer’s Note: When I was a young reporter of 21 at WYFF-TV4, Max Heller was in his last year as Mayor of Greenville. He was a short man with a large personality. It was during the time of Candies – women’s shoes with huge platforms and high heels. I am tall and I always wore Candies that made me even taller. Whenever I interviewed Max Heller, I would go barefooted and bend at the knees on order to make him appear taller on TV. He was that good a man.