DANVILLE — As a youth, Julius W. Hegeler II preferred the great outdoors to the halls of education.
When the dismissal bell rang, he shot out of school and ran home, where he ditched his books for his shotgun and bird dog and went hunting for quail and pheasant in the nearby fields.
But looking back, Hegeler, a retired businessman and community philanthropist, credits the local public school system with giving him a firm foundation in life.
"I owe a lot to them," he said of his teachers at the old Roselawn School and Danville High School. "They allowed me to graduate."
Hegeler plans to show his appreciation, once again, with a $1 million legacy gift to the Danville Public School Foundation. It's the single largest gift in the foundation's history.
"It's going to make such a huge difference in the lives of our children which is what Julius is all about," said Bob Richard, the foundation's executive director.
Foundation officials announced the bequest at a ceremony honoring Hegeler on Thursday evening at North Ridge Middle School. There, they presented him with the first Julius W. Hegeler II Legacy Circle Award, which will be given to other legacy-gift donors.
Established in 1989, the nonprofit foundation, governed by a board of private citizens and operated independently of the school district, raises money to support new and innovative educational programs that are "above and beyond the classroom curriculum" supported by tax dollars.
Hegeler said he's happy to help provide opportunities that will encourage kids to stay in school and graduate.
"Today, you need that to push a broom," he said.
The announcement comes six months after Danville Area Community College officials announced that Hegeler and the Julius W. Hegeler II Foundation were donating upwards of $3 million to the DACC Foundation — the college foundation's single largest gift. The donation allowed the college to break ground on a much-needed 10,000-square-foot addition, named for Hegeler, at the Harry J. Braun Technology Center in September.
Through that donation, the college will receive $100,000 each year to fund the interest payment on a $3 million bond issue used to fund the expansion. Upon his death, Hegeler will bequeath $3 million to the foundation, which will be used to pay off the principal left on those bonds.
Danville schools officials were surprised by this latest gift because it also came six months after Hegeler made the last payment of a $250,000 donation to the public school foundation, pledged in 2009 and given over five years.
"He had already given so much," Superintendent Mark Denman said. "I hadn't expected another gift even more generous than the first."
Hegeler decided to do that during a casual conversation with Richard in November. The two were talking about getting more forgetful with age.
Richard "said, 'Well, I hope you still remember you said you'd give me $1 million,'" recalled Hegeler, who then replied that he could make that happen. He said Richard was joking, but he wasn't.
Hegeler planned to make another donation all along but without Thursday's fanfare, which he would've preferred to skip. But, he said, it gave him a chance to thank his teachers, especially the late Paul Smoot and James H. Hawkins, who taught industrial-arts classes at the high school.
"I was a terrible student. It's the truth," Hegeler said, recalling he ranked 307 out of his class of 317. But "I enjoyed working with my hands and taking woodworking and mechanical drawing. That really helped after we started our company."
Hegeler is a 1946 Danville High graduate and was inducted into the school's Wall of Fame in 2011. He attended the University of Illinois for three years, then transferred to Millikin University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1950.
An Air Force first lieutenant in the Korean War, he served as an F-86 fighter pilot and flew 70 combat missions including the final mission of the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal and an Oak Leaf Cluster.
Hegeler's family-owned business, the Hegeler Zinc Co., helped put Danville on the map. After his discharge from the Air Force in 1955, Hegeler, along with his brother Edward and three other partners, founded the Peterson Filling and Packaging Co., which later became Peterson-Puritan Inc., the world's largest contract packager of chemical specialties. When the company was sold to Corn Products Co. in 1966, Hegeler served as vice president of facilities planning until his retirement in 1978.
Hegeler established his foundation in 1992. It has donated millions of dollars to numerous local agencies and projects focusing on historic preservation, health care, the arts, education, environmental education and improving the lives of children and people with disabilities.