Local and area officials remembered John Heldrich this week as a tireless servant of the public, one with outsized influence and a modest nature.
The funeral for Mr. Heldrich, a Johnson & Johnson executive who spearheaded the revitalization of New Brunswick, was held at 10:30 a.m. Monday at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on Raritan Avenue. Mr. Heldrich, died Oct. 28 at home. He was 88 years old.
“I didn’t know him very well,” said Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, who nonetheless recalled Mr. Heldrich’s generosity to the borough where he was raised and where he lived.
The mayor particularly recalled Mr. Heldrich’s support for The Fund for Highland Park, to which he donated money for items and initiatives, such as a new fire engine and summer programs for Highland Park students.
“He was very generous to us when that fund existed,” she said.
But it was across the river that Mr. Heldrich truly built his legacy. Although he was raised in Highland Park, Mr. Heldrich dedicated much of his life to bettering New Brunswick. His legacy there was made possible through a two-tiered approach to urban renewal that he spearheaded.
With one hand, Mr. Heldrich founded the New Brunswick Development Corp., which worked to revitalize the New Brunswick downtown with new construction. With the other, he founded New Brunswick Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that engaged with New Brunswick’s residents and civic organizations.
“He created our process of community engagement,” said Jeffrey Vega, president of New Brunswick Tomorrow. “In starting New Brunswick Tomorrow, he had the vision that you can’t revitalize a city just with the brick-and-mortar of Main Street.”
That community engagement took many forms. Among other actions, Mr. Heldrich helped the Puerto Rican Action Board find grant money to create daycare centers. He also convinced Middlesex County College to accommodate students who could not travel to its Edison campus by establishing an urban satellite now located on New Street and Joyce Kilmer Avenue.
He also assisted the former Middlesex General Hospital to expand, its first step towards becoming the current Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
Culturally, Mr. Heldrich aided the emergence of New Brunswick’s downtown theater district on Livingston Avenue. He is listed as a founding member of the boards of the State Theatre, Crossroads Theatre and George Street Playhouse.
“There is not a place in New Brunswick that he did not influence,” said Mr. Vega.
The son of German immigrants, Mr. Heldrich was born in 1929. After serving in the military during World War II, he graduated from Rutgers College in 1950 and went to work for Johnson & Johnson. Eventually serving as a member of the company’s Executive Committee, Board of Directors and as its vice president of administration, Mr. Heldrich worked for J&J for a total of 41 years.
In 2007, New Brunswick and DevCo honored Heldrich by naming a new hotel after him. The Heldrich Hotel is located on George Street and Livingston Avenue in the heart of the city’s theater district.
“There are so many words that could be used to describe John Heldrich, but simply stated, he was a good and a great man. The City of New Brunswick that we know today would not exist but for the love, compassion, and commitment of John Heldrich, and for that, is a much better place,” said New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill in a statement. “Every facet of New Brunswick – business, culture, the arts, architecture, education, philanthropy and beyond — bear the imprint of his legacy.”
“John was a humble man, a compassionate leader,” added Mr. Vega. “He will be missed.”