In May we got word through the DKE grapevine that Ned Heller had passed away on April 28, 2015 due to heart failure resulting from complications while undergoing treatment for some sort of blood disorder. It had been a dozen + years or so since I last saw Ned and I think it was at a DKE Reunion of all things. I got to know Ned from my time in Blacksburg as a DKE, numerous fraternity functions, living in DKE House while Ned as a graduate led the construction of the DKE Kitchen, and finally a one month post-graduation trip with Ned and two other Dekes after which Ned just kept going west. So my fond recollections are from a time in the late 1970’s when many of us also knew and were close friends with Ned.
Where to start…..well …Ned was from the Towson/Baltimore area, and graduated in 1975 with a Civil Engineering degree. Being a couple class years ahead of me, Ned was already one of the fraternity leaders when I joined Dekes. He also came from a family contracting business which meant he was a skilled carpenter/tradesman, and obviously was the go to guy when it came to construction and reconstruction projects at the DKE House. Also Ned was an albino. Actually a twin albino, with his brother Ted, also a VT student. The only way you could tell them apart was that Ned always had a DKE shirt or windbreaker on. Ned had white-white blonde hair and one of two colors of skin. Normally his skin was pure white; and when he went outside in the sun, it turned pink/red. He had all the other attributes of a Deke and in addition to being a gentleman, scholar and jolly good fellow he was also a Guzzle cup team member; intramural football, softball, and every other imaginable sport participant; etc. His virtuous honesty was infectious; and he always had a caring, but can-do attitude.
After doing some sort of work for the family business for a year after graduation, Ned came to Blacksburg and was ‘contracted’ by the fraternity to build the DKE kitchen. (I think we actually paid him $200/month plus beer). He pulled up in a pale blue converted 1968 Ford van and parked in the driveway. He slept in the van and took turns with the 13 house residents sharing the one bathroom/shower which also doubled as the kitchen sink for everyone. The entire DKE fraternity was rostered on as carpenter helpers and laborers and over a couple of months period the old first floor DKE bar area was gutted and converted into a kitchen/dining area. If we had a plan, it was in Ned’s head and somehow it got done. We knocked out walls, installed windows, built counters and cabinets and re-wired everything and changed the plumbing and somehow it worked. I think the total budget/cost was under $2000 including the numerous kegs of beer (they only cost $20/keg back then!) which was pretty good given the scope of the work done by Ned and his band of Dekes. As we are once again working to totally rebuild the kitchen, I can only think back to those times in the Fall of 1976 and the close friendship I, and many of us, developed with Ned working as one of Ned’s crew. What a treat looking back, learning how to organize a group of semi-sober college kids and actually get something done. Talk about the ultimate Habitat for Inhumanity project!
Come the Spring of 1977, I along with John ‘Smiles’ Hill F’74 and Roger ‘Fly’ Bolick W’74 joined Ned in the same old blue van for a road trip. Three Civil Engineers and one ‘uncivil sort’ headed out. We first headed South. I don’t think we got 100 miles or so before the van broke down. The starter motor went and given our limited funds we figured we could go on without one. The van had a three-on-the-tree manual transmission, so we had to push start the van to get it going. If we had to stop, we would back in or park on a hill to ease the starting pushing efforts. Needless to say that process didn’t last long and we got the sucker fixed.
On our trip, we invented the daily designated driver rule before it existed. We bummed supplies, food and cooler ice in true DKE fashion. We dined at all you can eat smorgasbords when we got to Florida stuffing ourselves at 3pm “early-bird” dining times for our one meal a day. We would show up at DKE houses on college campuses where available and pop in on the occasional DKE brother or family if we could find them. After one night of sleeping in the van in the Florida heat, we made pacts never to sleep four in the van again, as there simply wasn’t enough room. I guess we had a plan, but I can’t remember it. We went down to Key West, then turned around and went up to Montreal, Canada. In Hartford, Connecticut we were staying at Trinity College DKE House. We drove downtown that night with the windows rolled down and ended up at some honky-tonk bar where the music was rocking and were introduced to Yukon Jack snakebites. All of sudden Ned got slipped some sort of mickey in his drink and his legs went rubbery and collapsed. Looking back, I can’t recall how we got him out of the joint, or if we just propped him up in the corner somewhere, but somehow we got out alive. It was a bonding experience for the four of us and we became even better friends. After a month or so, Roger and I dropped off the tour and Smiles and Ned headed west. I think Smiles dropped off somewhere in about Denver and took the bus back and Ned carried on staying/living in LA or San Diego selling vacuum cleaners or something for several months, before coming back east.
When online searching for his obituary notices, I came across some of the remembrances posted by Ned’s family and friends. Amongst them were notes from Dekes; Mason Malmouth, Bill Vasaly S’72, Wayne Settle W’71, Mike Davis W’72, amongst others. Devoted friend and brother; we lost one of the really good ones!
I am sure others have fond memories of their friendship with Ned. If you would like to share these with the VT-DKE Alumni group we would be glad to post on website and/or publish in our future newsletters. You can even volunteer to write a Page 3 Now and Then column!
On a side note, when we received a note of Ned’s passing, one brother, Buzz Wainman W’75, recommended that we somehow memorialize Ned’s contributions to the fraternity and the DKE House (actually a good idea Buzz). In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, we are once again undertaking the complete demolition and reconstruction of the DKE House kitchen. Work is under way and in true Ned Heller fashion, the work is being undertaken mostly by alumni and brothers, and we hope to have it functional by the start of school. We are earmarking all contributions to the 2015 DKE Annual Giving Fund associated with this newsletter to support the “Ned Heller Memorial Kitchen” project and will look to have a dedication ceremony in Ned’s name later in the Fall. FFTHF, Dan