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There’s a victory lap this Sunday at St. Bede

LaSalle News Tribune

Monday, April 16, 2018  |  Article  |  

Veterans (95) Rezin, Sue--State Senate 38

Tom Heitmann knew there would be something honoring his late son at St. Bede Academy’s new track, but he still was surprised when he saw the large, white letters in between the running lanes.

They spell out “Captain Thomas J. Heitmann Memorial Track”, and when Tom Heitmann saw them he realized his son’s dream had come true.

“It was just like, ‘Oh wow,’ I think that’s when reality hit,” Heitmann said.

“It’s there, it’s done.”

Before his untimely death, Mendota native Thomas Heitmann set his mind on getting his alma mater a track. He intended to announce a fundraising campaign at a class reunion to get one built.

However, a helicopter crash during a 2011 training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., cut the 27-year-old Marine’s life short.

The Heitmann family, St. Bede and the community at large made sure Thomas’ dream was realized.

“We were all pretty much in shock after Thomas died,” Tom Heitmann said. “I can’t say enough for the Illinois Valley community and Mendota and Earlville — even people from Ottawa. There’s still good people out there.”

Sunday, the track will be dedicated and blessed after the 10 a.m. Mass.

The public is invited to attend the ceremony, which will be held in the abbey church.

Thomas’ parents Tom and Mary Heitmann, and his five siblings will be in attendance.

So will state Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris), Thomas’ commanding officer Col. Robert Morgan and possibly one of Thomas’ flight school friends.

“Everyone is welcome if they want to attend. It is open to everyone who would like to be a part of it,” said Rachel (Heitmann) Christensen, Thomas’ sister.

Getting the project on track

Tom Heitmann said his son was considering the idea of fundraising to build a track for a while before his death.

Thomas was a successful runner at St. Bede, where some of his records still stand. Plus all of his five St. Bede alumni siblings — Aaron, Rachel, Hannah, Sarah and Mary Elizabeth — competed in track and field.

“He was a visionary person,” Tom Heitmann said. “He envisioned this.”

However, the decision to continue toward the goal after Thomas’ death wasn’t made immediately.

“You always want to plant a tree or put a rock up,” Tom Heitmann said, but he credited longtime St. Bede track coach Mike Skoflanc as well as John Fusinatto and John Heitmann with pushing forward with the track project.

“They dragged me along,” Tom Heitmann said.

The goal seemed daunting at first, and there were doubts that hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised in a reasonable amount of time.

“I thought I’d never live long enough to see it done,” Tom Heitmann admitted.

However, more than $200,000 was raised via mostly small donations. St. Bede contributed a $250,000 gift that included the site and initial site work. Donors added another $40,000 specifically for the track.

Plus, Tom Heitmann credited generous contractors who made decisions behind the scenes to make the track a reality.

“Only they and St. Bede know how much they did, but it was a lot,” Heitmann said. “They’re sort of the unsung heroes. I’d like those people know they made a difference.”

Six years and three days after Thomas’ death, the memorial track was completed.

“It’s been weird, this week I’ve been a little emotional just thinking about it,” Christensen said. “It’s pretty amazing we were able to accomplish this in five years. When we first started, I thought, ‘This was a lofty goal. Five years, there’s no way, this is going to take 10.’ I’m super excited. Still just kind of in a state of awe that it’s done and we’re here.”

No more halls or Hall

St. Bede students began running on the track for the first time this spring.

“One of the track kids that I know said, ‘Mr. Heitmann, I thank you for the track, but couldn’t you have waited until I graduated. They’re running us like crazy,’” Heitmann said before laughing.

Track coach Ron Barnes said the weather hasn’t been particularly cooperative so far, but they have tried to run outdoors whenever possible. “Every chance we’ve had, that we can go out, we have gone out.” he said. “Having a chance to practice on a track rather than our hallways is going to help us immensely.”

When students weren’t running the halls, they were running at Hall.

Hall High School would let St. Bede students use the track after the Red Devils’ track practice concluded.

“We can’t go ’til 4:30 there usually,” Barnes said. “Early on in the season, it gets dark and it gets cold.”

Tom Heitmann recalled his kids having trouble with shin splints because of track practice in the school’s halls and said he’s glad students are now running on the six-lane, 400 meter track north of the girls boarding house.

“It’s neat to see how it’s impacting people,” Christensen said. “Maybe one of the kids training on it will break one of his records.”