DANVILLE — Early in his philanthropic career, Danville icon Julius W. Hegeler II made a sizable donation to a large playground built by the Danville AMBUCS.
At the grand opening in 1999, the millionaire showed up early — and picked up a broom to sweep the sidewalks.
That summed up Mr. Hegeler, a humble businessman and “hands-on benefactor” who died Friday at age 91 after a short illness, said close friend Bob Richard, director of the Danville Public Schools Foundation and an AMBUCS volunteer.
A lifelong Danville resident and Korean War veteran, Mr. Hegeler made it his mission to help his hometown, and his generosity touched just about any organization that helped children, Richard said. The millions he donated also benefited education, the environment, health care, historic preservation, the arts, veterans and people with disabilities.
“He just had a huge heart for Danville,” Richard said Friday, adding that few nonprofits in the city went untouched by his foundation. “There are very few people who leave a footprint that a man like Julius W. Hegeler II leaves.”
Mr. Hegeler’s Danville roots date back to 1905, when his grandfather — for whom he was named — moved there and established what became the Hegeler Zinc Co., which put the city on the map.
Mr. Hegeler was born May 9, 1928, to Edward C. Hegeler II and Madelle Hegeler and had two siblings, Edward and Madelle.
He often joked that as a child he preferred to play outside or “dream” rather than pay attention in school, but he took more interest in drafting and wood- and metalworking classes at Danville High.
Years later, he expressed gratitude to the teachers who helped him graduate and left $2 million to the schools foundation, its largest gift.
“He basically has sustained our mission for years to come,” Richard said.
After attending the University of Illinois and serving in the Army National Guard for three years, Hegeler earned a business degree from Millikin University in 1950, then enlisted in the Air Force.
A decorated fighter pilot, Mr. Hegeler flew 70 missions in the Korean War as a first lieutenant. Back at home, he continued to fly his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron well into his 80s.
After returning to Danville in 1955, he and his brother and other partners built what would become Peterson-Purtian Inc., a chemical packaging company and one of Vermilion County’s largest employers.
He married Bobette Steely in 1956, and they had three children, Alix, Harlin and Madelle. She died in 1976.
His company was sold to Corn Products Co. in 1966, but Hegeler remained a vice president until he retired in 1978.
In 1992, he placed 90 percent of his fortune into the Julius W. Hegeler II Foundation, in part to restore the stately mansion where he grew up and turn it into a museum.
In the past few years, he gave away more than $15 million, including planned gifts of $3 million each for a technology center at Danville Area Community College, a cancer center at OSF Sacred Heart Medical Center, and a new vocational center at WorkSource, which provides services for those with disabilities.
WorkSource President and CEO Frank Brunacci said Mr. Hegeler, who had hired people with disabilities at his own company, asked how he could help after touring the center’s deteriorating, 50-year-old vocational center.
Though the new facility and other Danville buildings will carry his name, Mr. Hegeler never sought the limelight, Richard and Brunacci said.
“It was just an honor to know him, even if you didn’t give him a penny,” Brunacci said.
Two of Mr. Hegeler’s most recent gifts helped launch Balloons Over Vermilion, the annual hot air balloon festival coming up July 12-13, and restore the historic downtown Fischer Theatre, slated to be finished for a grand opening in September.
“He didn’t turn anyone away,” Richard said, as long as it benefited Danville or Vermilion County.
Mr. Hegeler remained active until recent days, attending a friend’s 90th birthday party just two weeks ago.
Brunacci, who was part of a group of friends who had regular dinners with Mr. Hegeler at the country club, called him a “very caring, giving person. He’s done so much for so many. He was just a terrific man.”