The University continued a rich heritage of generous, creative, persistent, energetic women when it celebrated philanthropists Ronnie F. Heyman and Lois Pope at Tuesday’s 30th anniversary of Women of Distinction.
Previous Women of Distinction honorees Frances Fisher and Eileen Burns reprised their roles as co-chairs of the luncheon. The annual event raises money for scholarships for outstanding female students. About 360 people attended the celebration at The Breakers, Palm Beach.
This year’s scholarship recipients are Sarah Foster, a junior from Jacksonville, Florida, studying molecular biology and biotechnology; Julissa Gonzalez, a senior from Orlando, Florida, studying psychology; Mai Homrich, a senior from Lake Worth, Florida, studying nursing; and Sarah Pouliot, a sophomore from Titusville, Florida, studying English and secondary education.
Audrey Gruss, a 2019 Woman of Distinction honoree, introduced Heyman. Heyman, a Palm Beach resident, earned a law degree from Yale and enjoyed a life of family, art-collecting and philanthropy before the unexpected death of her husband, Sam. Ronnie Heyman “did what she had to do” and took over as chair of GAF Corporation, the country’s largest manufacturer of roofing and building materials, Gruss said.
Heyman introduced her husband to the art world in the 1970s and passed her art-collecting instincts along to her daughter. Today, she serves as president of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and endowed the Heyman Plaza at the entrance to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, which is home to Claes Oldenburg’s enormous Typewriter Eraser, Scale X sculpture.
Together, the Heymans founded the Partnership for Public Service in Washington to address the need for reform in government agencies, streamline the federal hiring process and aid in presidential transitions. The Heymans also established fellowship programs at both Harvard and Yale law schools.
In her opening remarks, Heyman lamented the decline of civil and civic attitudes in American public life, recalling the day 50 years ago when she and her husband watched Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger walk on the Great Wall of China.
“I grew up in a nation that respected and aspired to elegance and eloquence, hard work, good manners, decency and service to others,” Heyman said. “My parents taught my brother and me to be worthwhile, to stand for something, to be principled, and they taught us that the greatest joy of having financial wherewithal was the ability to give of it to support good outcomes.”
These are values that all the women in the room share, but they are being challenged by the right and the left, she said.
PBA represents the basic precepts that Heyman as a proud American and as an observant Jew holds dear, she said. On a recent visit to campus, President Dr. Debra A. Schwinn shared with Heyman the University’s future plans to grow graduate programs in medical fields, science and business.
“Every student I encountered was courteous, genteel, helpful and wholesome. The library was a quiet beehive of serious study,” Heyman said. “It is reassuring that the scholarship dollars that we raised here today will enable altruistic and dedicated young women of faith to graduate into our community as a force for good.”
Fisher, a 2006 Woman of Distinction, introduced Pope, who “possesses deep integrity, vision and an extraordinary commitment to this community and our country.” Pope spearheaded the establishment of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, the nation’s first permanent public tribute to living disabled veterans.
“Lois is a reminder to all Americans of the unwavering spirit and determination that created our beloved country as a shining symbol of freedom,” Fisher said.
Pope, a Manalapan resident, opened her remarks by quoting the Helen Reddy song “I Am Woman”: “I am woman, hear me roar. Roar! I am strong, I am woman.”
“Those words perfectly describe one specific woman: my mother,” Pope said. “My mother was a teacher, and the greatest lesson she taught me was generosity of spirit, of selflessness and, most importantly, of service.”
Pope grew up in modest means in Philadelphia. During the height of the Depression, her mother never turned away anyone who came to their door for help, she said.
Her mother’s generosity inspired Pope to perform at a benefit for disabled Vietnam veterans at Rusk Rehabilitation in New York City. The large hall was full of young soldiers with such horrific injuries that Pope started shaking and prayed God would give her strength, courage and grace.
She sang the song “Somewhere” and when she got to the line, “hold my hand and I’ll take you there,” she reached down to hold the hand of a young soldier lying on a gurney. “But he had no hand for me to hold,” Pope said. “That was and still is one of the most defining moments of my life, and I promised God that night if I ever was in a position to help, if I had the means, I would do something worthy of their sacrifice.”
Years later, she visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a helicopter swooped down, startling an older man next to her in a wheelchair. Memories from that night at the Rusk flashed back in Pope’s mind. She asked a park ranger where the monument was for disabled veterans, only to discover there wasn’t one.
“I decided right then and there, I would build one,” Pope said.
Two decades and much fundraising later, then-President Barack Obama dedicated the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial.
In her other philanthropic endeavors helping veterans, abandoned and abused animals and hungry and disadvantaged children with limited recreational opportunities, “all that I do comes from my own Woman of Distinction, my mother,” Pope said.
She finished with the refrain from the Reddy song, the audience joining her this time: “We are women. Hear us roar.”