Former Greenville Mayor Max Heller, patron saint of the city’s downtown renaissance, died Monday at 92.
That downtown today is often compared to European cities’ tree lined streets and profusion of sidewalk cafes is a tribute to Heller’s Austrian roots and Jewish cosmopolitan attitudes. He fled his native land after the Nazi invasion at the start of World War II.
He died peacefully at home surrounded by family.
When Heller took the helm as mayor in 1971 downtown was well on its way toward becoming a wasteland of empty storefronts. At Heller’s death downtown Greenville is known nationally as a shining example of revitalization.
“Max was an inspiration to me and a wonderful teacher about the importance of urban places,” said Knox White, Greenville mayor. “I knew him when I was 18 years old and chaired the city’s youth commission. He and his generation decided in the 1970s not to give up on downtown.
“Most cities just gave up. Greenville’s progress since that time was far from a straight line, but I like to think in recent years we recaptured the legacy of bold action especially in reclaiming the Reedy River and West End.”
The Heller story is the stuff of movies. His chance meeting with Mary Mills of Greenville at a dance in Vienna in 1937 opened the door to escape in 1938 just ahead of the German pogrom that is better known today as the Holocaust.
“Back in those days you had to have a sponsor if you were a Jew trying to escape to America,” said Rabbi Julie Anne Kozlow of Congregation Beth Israel on Summit Drive where Heller was a pillar of the synagogue. “Max wrote to the Miller family and they sponsored him to come to Greenville.”
The Heller home is about a block away from the synagogue on Pinehurst Drive. That Heller chose to live in the shadow of his temple speaks volumes about the man and the family he raised, Kozlow said.
His courtship and marriage to Trude Schonthal Heller, a fellow Viennan, whom Heller proposed to when she was 15 years old, is legendary among the congregation and in Greenville as a whole.
They were married in 1942 on Main Street in Greenville.
“They are… were two halves to a wonderful whole,” Kozlow said. “It’s hard for me to use the past tense when talking about Max.”
Her stunned expression during the interview at the synagogue gave eloquent testimony that Heller was far more than just another congregant at Beth Israel. Flowers left at the feet of Heller’s statue on North Main Street downtown were a clear statement that far more than just another mayor has passed away.
Tuesday, teachers were bringing small groups of school children to visit the statue and hear the story of Heller. The kids would pause, looking at the fast wilting flowers at the bronze’s feet, and then stare up at Heller’s kind face.
It was his inherent humanity that made Heller a favorite with Greenville’s electorate and it also lead him to fall victim to anti-Semitic smears during his one foray beyond the city limits to run against then Republican Carroll Campbell.
Heller lost that election, a bitterly fought affair. Politicians who knew Heller best said the race against Campbell hurt, but the former mayor never criticized the soon to be governor and said in later years that Campbell had made a good state chief executive.
For his part, Campbell consistently denied his campaign had anything to do with anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Cooper White, the mayor who preceded Heller at City Hall, said he first met Heller when he spoke to the congregation at Beth Israel while campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1962.
“Max said it would be hard for him to support a candidate who was so negative, and I told him eight of the 10 Commandments were prohibitions,” White said. “Max said ‘Touch??, Mr. White’ and called me the next day to set up a stock account. It was the start of a wonderful friendship.”
White, a Republican, said he recruited Heller, a Democrat, to run for city council a few years later.
“When I stepped down as mayor, Max ran and won,” White said. “He did an outstanding job.”
Perhaps Heller’s closest political friend and ally was former Gov. Richard Riley, who named Heller director of the then state economic development board.
“Max and I would visit potential industrial recruits in Europe and we took along our wives. Trude and Tunky (Riley’s late wife) both spoke German. It was a wonderful time,” Riley said.
The pair met often in later years and the friendship endured.
“Most people don’t realize how much Max did for Furman,” Riley said. The former governor and U.S. Secretary of Education is a board member at Furman, as was Heller.
He said Heller’s connection to the former Southern Baptist school was typical of the former mayor’s ability to reach out across religious and ethnic boundaries.
Sitting Furman University President Rod Smolla said, “Once I arrived in Greenville last summer, it didn’t take me long to understand and appreciate the wonderful influence that Max Heller had on this community. Max Heller had a long and productive history with both Greenville and Furman, and each became a better place because of its association with him. It was apparent that he loved this community and what it gave him. We can be thankful he gave back as much as he received.”
Heller’s association with Furman University included serving on the Advisory Council and the Board of Trustees. He was a trustee emeritus at the time of his death. Furman awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1975 and the Bell Tower Award in 1998. The Heller Service Corps at the university is named in honor of him and his wife, Trude, who received an honorary degree from Furman in 1999.
Heller also had honorary degrees from Clemson University and Winthrop University.
In addition to Trude, Heller is survived by daughters Francie Heller, Susan Heller Moses and son Steven Heller and wife Margaret; 10 grandchildren, Lauren Hurvitz (David Katz), Julie Friedland (David Friedland), Lynne Moses Garfinkel (Dr. Michael Garfinkel), Robert Hurvitz (Jaymee), Stuart Hurvitz (Shiva), Daniel Moses (Allison), Sarah Heller (Scott Koenig), Rory Heller, Andrew Heller, Elliot Heller. Fifteen great-grandchildren, Benjamin, Jason, Henry, Jake and Carly Hurvitz, Adam and Jami Garfinkel, Natalie, CC, and Lila Katz, Jack and Charlie Moses, Olivia, John and Lily Friedland and his nephew Gene Korf (Maddy).
Services for Heller were held Wednesday at Congregation Beth Israel. He is buried in the synagogue’s cemetery.