He never served in the military. He set no athletic records. He didn’t write best-sellers, and he wasn’t a rock star.
Max Heller was my hero because, almost single-handedly, he envisioned and spearheaded the rebuilding of a city in decline. He died this week at age 92. The city is Greenville, South Carolina, a city I never visited until three years ago.
Heroes of myth usually have a story of origin that creates and begins the hero’s timeline. Max Heller was born in Austria and he foresaw the German occupation and problems for Jews. He was only able to escape to America because he met an American girl at a pre-war dance and shared addresses with her. He later wrote and asked if she could find him a job in America so he could escape. She found him a job, sweeping the floors of a Jewish-owned mill in her hometown of Greenville, South Carolina.
Mr. Heller quickly rose within the company and eventually owned his own shirt manufacturing company in a town whose broad Main Street had become largely deserted after experiencing the effects of suburban sprawl and the exodus of shops to the malls.
He ran for and was elected to the Greenville city council, and then became its mayor in the 1970s.
My friend, Deb Ayers, owns a leather shop on Greenville’s Main Street. She once told me how Mr. Heller went to all the remaining property and shop owners in the downtown to ask them to buy into his vision. “And he sat right here at this table with my dad and me,” she said, “and he asked us if we would like to see a Main Street with large trees lining the street, and restaurants with sidewalk cafes and women pushing baby strollers, and of course, we said ‘yes.’”
And that is what downtown Greenville looks like today. It is a model of what can happen to a city with the right vision, the right energy, the right political leadership, and the right public-private partnering. It’s what can happen when petty political bickering and posturing give way to common goals.
In November of 2008, as then-chairman of the High Point City Project, I had the privilege of leading a bus full of business and political leaders from High Point to meet with Greenville officials to witness what they had done and to hear their story.
The Greenville Renaissance they described to us started with Max Heller. Few conversations could be completed without mentioning his name. Mayor Heller may have died, but the story continues. My law firm has an office a couple of blocks off of Greenville’s Main Street. I visit the city often, and each time I’m there it gets even better.
You can read a link to his obituary here. A short article on his life that gives greater details of his escape from Austria can be found at this link.
After escaping from the Nazis and seeking shelter in a country founded on principles of religious tolerance, after working his way up from janitor to company owner and creating a Miracle on Main Street, and after a career grounded in hard work, integrity and inclusiveness, Max Heller was reminded that the Germans did not have a corner on anti-Semitism.
Following is a one-sentence description from another one of his obituaries describing his only race for Congress: “Heller ran for Congress in 1978 as a Democrat, losing to Republican Carroll Campbell in a race where a Campbell campaign poll asked people’s preference for Campbell, described as a native South Carolinian, or Heller, described as a Jewish immigrant.”
Make whatever point of it you wish.
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