DANVILLE – Julius W. Hegeler II has long been recognized for his philanthropy in the Danville area and with his passing Friday, Hegeler’s legacy is certain to live on in the community.
Hegeler, 91, amassed his wealth from his family’s Hegeler Zinc works located south of Danville where zinc was smelted from 1906 to 1954. After serving as a jet fighter pilot in the Korean War, Hegeler teamed up with brother, Edward, Harry and Robert Peterson and Jack Shea to build the Peterson/Puritan Filling and Packaging plant at the former Hegeler zinc site.
Through the Julius W. Hegeler II Foundation, Hegeler has lent support to innumerable community projects, especially in the last several years.
“He was Danville’s guardian angel,” said Phil Langley, who is a Danville Area Community College instructor and a Vermilion Heritage Foundation board member overseeing the restoration of the Fischer Theater.
“His philanthropy wasn’t limited. He funded projects at churches and Laura Lee Fellowship House,” he said. “He looked over everyone in Danville, and he was willing to help where his money would be best spent.”
Langley said Hegeler contacted him in May 2018 inquiring about restoring the Fischer Theater in Downtown Danville. Langley gave Hegeler a tour of the former opera house.
“He decided he wanted to see the landmark saved,” he said.
The exterior of the building was restored first with a new roof, tuck pointing, new windows and new heating and air conditioning units.
“It was a 100 percent redo,” Langley said of the exterior.
Hegeler was a frequent visitor during the construction work.
“He would come by a couple times a week, and they put him up on a boom lift to see the roof,” Langley said. “He was very invested and on the premises often.
“When the work was completed by Thanksgiving, Julius asked me, ‘What are you going to work on over the winter?’”
Langley said work then focused on the theater’s interior with a new addition being built to house an elevator to the second floor and new restrooms. The auditorium features new seating to accommodate 850 guests, repairs to the decorative plasterwork that will be painted according to 1912 colors, as well as the installation of new carpeting, lighting, radiant floor heat and a new electrical system.
Unlike other projects Hegeler has funded, Langley said Hegeler did not set a limit to be spent on restoring the Fischer.
“I have no idea how much he’s spent,” he said. “We’ve never seen a bill.”
Langley said the auditorium work is “nearing completion.”
“We still have some more to be done on the stage,” he said.
Hegeler’s donations to Danville Area Community College include $5 million in planned gifts for the technology center and Dr. Alice Marie Jacobs Hall — Carnegie Library as well as more than $1 million in cash gifts.
“He’s woven into the fabric of this college,” DACC President Stephen Nacco said.
Hegeler’s foundation funded a new state-of-the-art greenhouse in 2011 to replace an old greenhouse. In 2013, Hegeler arranged for a planned gift of $3 million to build the 10,000-square-foot Julius W. Hegeler II Advance Technology Center, which was dedicated in December 2014. In addition, Hegeler pledged to donate $100,000 each year to fund the interest payment on the $3 million bond issuance for the project.
The ornamental horticulture building was renamed for Hegeler in 2016 after his foundation funded a major spruce-up of the building’s interior and design labs as well as the grounds. One of the project’s largest improvements was transforming a former storage room into a student study area.
After the college acquired the old Carnegie Library from the Veterans Affairs, Hegeler bequeathed $2 million in 2017 for future renovations at the Dr. Alice Marie Jacobs Hall — Carnegie Library to turn it into an art gallery and theater.
“DACC is a major piece of the legacy Julius has left to our community,” he said. “His name will live forever at the college -- in the buildings bearing his name, in the Garden Gateway and in the permanent display of his Korean War medals and Air Force uniform.”
Hegeler also bequeathed $3 million in 2017 to the David S. Palmer Arena for new ice machinery and other improvements, including a new ice center entrance likely on the building’s southwest corner. He bequeathed $3 million to Presence United Samaritans Medical Center to rename the cancer center after his wife, Bobette Steely Hegeler. He also funded improvements to the restrooms and the 60-year-old gymnasium at the Laura Lee Fellowship House as well as the installation of a new scoreboard at Danville Stadium this year.
The Danville Public Library dedicated an outdoor stage in May 2015 in memory of Hegeler’s wife who had been a library board trustee. Hegeler gave a $3 million planned gift to WorkSource Enterprises in 2016 for an addition to be named the Julius W. Hegeler II Vocational Center.
Hegeler also was the title sponsor of Balloon Over Vermilion, now in its fourth year.
Developing youth programs was one of Hegeler’s passions when he was president of the Vermilion County Museum board.
Hegeler was the second person to serve as president of the board, from July 1967 to June 1970.
“He helped put the museum on a solid footing,” museum Director Sue Richter said.
He and others agreed that the museum should be free to children to help develop their interest in history, and that tours would be given to students.
Former state Sen. Judy Myers, a member of the museum board, said, “When there are kids involved, he was all for it.”
He also was president when the museum came up with its accession policy to determine which items would be accepted for its collections.
In the past couple of years, Richter said, he provided funds to renovate the Fithian home and to renovate the Lamon House, which is under way now. He also gave money for the school programs.
“He gave back to his own community,” Richter said. “That’s something people need to do.”
She added, “It’s a loss to the community. He supported a lot of different projects.”
Bob Richard, executive director of the Danville Public School Foundation, said of Hegeler, “Danville has lost a true friend in his passing. Many of us have lost a close friend.”
Richard recalled Hegeler, a 1946 graduate of Danville High School, was the first donor to the Danville Public School Foundation. His initial $1 million gift in 2013 prompted the creation of the Public School Foundation’s Julius W. Hegeler II Legacy Circle. In 2016, Hegeler bequeathed $1 million to benefit generations of Danville schoolchildren for years to come.
“He was a wonderful benefactor,” Richard said. “His gifts will ensure the foundation will continue for years.”
Danville Mayor Rickey Williams said his history with Hegeler goes back two decades when Williams was named Homecoming King at Millikin University, which was Hegeler’s alma mater as well.
“In 1998, I was the Homecoming King at Millikin, and at a reception he came over and shook my hand and said he was proud a Danville boy had won. He told me to reach out to him if I ever needed anything,” Williams recalled.
Williams took him up on the offer years later when he was director of the Boys and Girls Club of Danville.
“He helped us pay off the Boys and Girls Club building,” he said.
“I respect and admire everything he did for our community, especially the Fischer Theater,” Williams said. “The Fischer Theater is a great cultural, economic and social blessing for the entire county.”
Staff writer Mary Wicoff contributed to this report.
Some of the organizations that have benefited from the Julius W. Hegeler II Foundation:
• Danville AMBUCS
• Vermilion County Conservation District
• Balloons Over Vermilion
• Danville Family YMCA
• Big Brothers Big Sisters of Danville
• Danville Area Community
• WorkSource Enterprises
• OSF - Bobette Steely Cancer Center
• Danville Public Library Foundation
• United Way of Danville Area
• Laura Lee Fellowship House
• Vermilion County War Museum
• Vermilion County Airport Authority