WWII vet dies as last wish was to be fulfilled: pipe organ performance for 100th birthday

Robert Heinzen died a day before the celebration his family was rushing to pull together. They decided to go ahead with the performance as a memorial Mass.

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Organist Derek Nickels plays “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” by J.S. Bach during a memorial Mass for Robert Heinzen at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Monday, August 1, 2022, in Wilmette.

Organist Derek Nickels plays “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” by J.S. Bach during a memorial Mass for Robert Heinzen at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Wilmette.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

It became a race against time.

Robert Heinzen’s health was declining.

It was clear the World War II veteran wouldn’t live long enough to attend the party planned for his 100th birthday in October.

His last wish was to hold the celebration at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Wilmette, where a thundering piece by Johann Sebastian Bach would be played on the massive pipe organ he helped raise money for and install.

Robert Heinzen with his late wife, Betty.

Robert Heinzen with his late wife, Betty.

Provided

Family members pushed up the date to Aug. 1 and rushed to finalize details. Margaret Smith, one of Mr. Heinzen’s nine children, turned to social media to find an organist who could play the tune.

“What he would really like is to hear the organ played in all its glory with all the stops pulled out and the chandeliers rattling,” she wrote.

Mr. Heinzen died of heart failure Sunday, July 31, at Glenbrook Hospital, one day before the celebration was to take place.

But in line with Mr. Heinzen’s love of theater and music, the family concluded: The show must go on.

Comments on Smith’s social media post pointed her to organist Derek Nickels, music director at Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth. He agreed to play.

Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue in D minor,” its first three notes instantly recognizable, “rocked the house,” Smith said after the birthday-turned-memorial gathering.

“I play lots of funerals, and it’s very rare that people live to be 100. And certainly, Mr. Heinzen had quite a distinguished career, and I thought it would be nice to honor him,” Nickels said.

“I was sad to learn that he had died over the weekend,” he added. “He was there in spirit.”

Nickels said the Bach arrangement, while not overly challenging, can be daunting to play; it’s almost universally known, so listeners also know if a mistake is made.

“It’s powerful and loud, and certainly a crowd pleaser,” he said.

To conclude the Mass, Charles-Marie Widor’s “Toccata in F” — a favorite of Mr. Heinzen’s — was played by the church’s regular organist, John Hopkins.

“We felt he was looking down and supporting the whole thing,” Smith said.

Singing, theater and pipe organ music — though he didn’t play the organ — were lifelong passions for Mr. Heinzen.

“As a grade schooler at St. Joseph School in Wilmette, he would occasionally get pulled out of class to sing at funerals. He had a beautiful voice and sang in choirs his whole life,” Smith said.

“As an adult, he’d take trips to hear theater and church organs around the world. I mean who does that? People go snorkeling,” Smith said with a laugh.

Mr. Heinzen worked as a mortgage broker and a real estate appraiser while raising his family in the northern suburb with his wife, Betty, who died in 2008.

“He’s a wonderful father and grandpa to some of us, for others a beloved curmudgeon,” his son James Heinzen said during the Mass.

“His life was shaped by his service to our country. When WWII raged, the Army gave him one of the toughest jobs. He had two days of medical training. He was a combat medic at the Battle of the Bulge. What a horrendous burden to put on a young man’s shoulders. All of us owe our existence to his survival of this carnage. He came home wounded, but he came home alive,” he said.

He brought home an unwanted souvenir — shrapnel in his leg, earning him a Purple Heart.

“He never spoke of it. He just never wanted to speak about it. He kept it to himself,” Smith said.

A young Robert Heinzen, who served as an Army medic in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.

Robert Heinzen served as an Army medic in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.

Provided

Well into his 90s, Mr. Heinzen was a part of the now-disbanded Skokie-based senior theater group Still Acting Up well into his 90s.

“He called everyone ‘darlin’, without the g. He was so adorable,” said Marcy Feinberg, who was part of the group and got to know Mr. Heinzen during breaks in rehearsal when he chose to stay on stage.

“He used a walker, so it was just easier for him. But I never wanted to leave him alone, so we just sat and talked,” Feinberg said. “He had kind of a wry sense of humor, a little sarcastic, a little edgy. Maybe you wouldn’t have even taken it from someone else sometimes, but you knew it was Bob.”

Despite mobility challenges, he got where he wanted to go.

Robert Heinzen, seated in the center, with his family.

Robert Heinzen, seated in the center, with his family.

Provided

“He had the attitude that if he got up in the morning and didn’t see his name in the obits, he was going to get up and do his thing,” she said.

At 94, during a performance staged as a call-in radio show in which theater members were encouraged to open up about anything in their lives, Mr. Heinzen chose to talk about surviving WWII and living life when he got home.

“Looking back over 94 years, I have lived a lot, seen a lot, but I always looked forward, didn’t leave much time for reflection. And through all that time I’ve learned one thing: It’s all about the folks who weave in and out of our lives along the way,” he said, even penning a song for the occasion titled ‘Folks Along the Way.’”

Lyrics to “Folks Along the Way,” a song written and performed by Robert Heinzen.

Lyrics to “Folks Along the Way,” a song written and performed by Robert Heinzen.

Provided

Mr. Heinzen, who loved gardening and baking white bread for his kids, known as “daddy bread,” still drove and volunteered at the Chicago Botanic Garden as he neared centenarian status.

In addition to James and Margaret, Heinzen is survived by his sons Jeff, Bill, John and Stephen, and his daughters Mary Ann, Susan and Patricia, as well as 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Services will be private.

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