Max Heller, the visionary behind downtown's rebirth

10 people business downtown statues featured people politics visionary


PATRICK COLLARD/Staff

Max Heller was elected mayor in 1971. Heller, the man most responsible for bringing life to a dying Main Street, will now stand watch forever over the city of Greenville's vibrant downtown area that delights visitors and long-time residents alike. His vision, boldness and kindness helped shape this city that expressed its gratitude in a most appropriate manner on the former mayor's 90th birthday.


When Max Heller was elected mayor in 1971, Greenville's Main Street was a collection of vacant buildings and empty streets. Main Street was a four-lane thoroughfare that made it difficult for visitors to park but easy for them to escape what had once been the region's commercial hub.

Among Heller's initiatives was a downtown beautification project that turned two of the traffic lanes into tree-lined, visitor-friendly parking areas.

Heller, the man most responsible for bringing life to a dying Main Street, will now stand watch forever over the city of Greenville's vibrant downtown area that delights visitors and long-time residents alike. His vision, boldness and kindness helped shape this city that expressed its gratitude Thursday in a most appropriate manner on the former mayor's 90th birthday.

The Mayor Max Heller Sculpture in Legacy Plaza — a bronze sculpture that captures the energy and affability of Heller, was dedicated May 28, 2009, on a day set aside to honor the man who decades ago wanted his adopted hometown to become more than nature had in store for it. The dedication of the statue — forced by threatening weather from Legacy Plaza to the Hyatt Regency hotel — was an emotional tribute for those who already knew Heller's life story and his personal contributions, and a needed history lesson for others.

In 1938, a 19-year-old Heller escaped Nazi-occupied Austria with the help of a young Greenville woman he had met only briefly a year earlier and a Greenville businessman. He arrived with $1.80 in his pocket and has long been giving back to a community that welcomed him as an immigrant.

Heller began working as a janitor, but eventually became general manager of Salzman's Piedmont Shirt Co. From that modest job in a shirt factory, Heller built a distinguished career, and he and his wife Trude became an inspiration to their family and their community. In 1946, Heller started his own firm, the Maxon Shirt Co.

Not content to rest after his business life was over, Heller jumped into civic work after retiring in 1968 from Maxon Shirt and selling the company.

He was elected to Greenville City Council in 1969 and served for two years before he was elected mayor. Together with the help and backing of two of Greenville's leading businessmen — the late Buck Mickel and Tommy Wyche — Heller set out to restore life to the downtown area and turn it into an open, welcoming place.

As Mickel's daughter, Minor M. Shaw said during the statue dedication ceremony in May 2009, "Tommy, Buck and Max planted the seeds of transformation of this city we enjoy today."

It's hard to remember today, even for some who lived through it, that the vision Heller wanted to turn into a reality was not accepted universally. It came with more than its share of controversy and opposition. After all, in the 1970s, who could envision a two-lane Main Street, lined with trees, and filled with people who dared to think of this urban strip as a park?

Well, Heller, with his European viewpoint of people-filled urban parks, could. So could Mickel and Wyche. And so could a City Council that made tough decisions since proved right many times over.

Heller had "a willingness to act boldly," Mayor Knox White said at the dedication ceremony. The vision Heller had was extraordinary for the time, but decades later other cities are still trying to copy what Greenville has done.

Judge Merl Code called Heller "the primary visionary" in the rejuvenation of downtown Greenville. "He transformed people by the power of his intellect, his passion, his charm and his inspirational outlook on life," Code said, and noted Heller "challenged us to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone, for the greater good."

"This small-framed man with tiny feet has left Paul Bunyan footprints in this community," said Code said. "We are privileged and honored that Max has walked among us."

Code said the sculpture, in what will be known as the Legacy Plaza, "is an everlasting tribute which signifies Max's importance to this community. Our lives have been richer because of Max."

In addition to Shaw and White, Code was joined at the podium by former Governor Richard Riley, Fine Arts Center director Roy Fluhrer, and Rabbi Julie Koslow, along with four generations of the Heller family — Max and wife, Trude, daughter Francie Heller, granddaughter Lauren Hurvitz and great-grandson Benjamin Hurvitz.

"Everyone who worked on the project has a Max Heller story," said businessman Michael Shain, whose grandfather and father were close friends with Heller. Shain, co-chairman of the Max on Main steering committee, called the ceremony "a celebration of compassion, courage, entrepreneurial spirit and giving back."

One of the many virtues of Heller has been his insistence of sharing credit with others. He was quick to do that on a day set aside to honor him. He recognized those who worked beside him decades ago to save downtown, and those who have continued to build on the dream.

"I'm so proud to be there," Heller said. "I owe so much to so many."

He offered a special thanks to the Rev. Mary Moore Roberson, the daughter of the late Mary Mills — a Greenville native who helped Heller and his family escape the persecution of Nazi-controlled Austria in 1938. She offered the invocation. Heller also gave thanks to the family members of the late Shepherd Saltzman, a Greenville business owner who, at the request of Mills, sponsored Heller's immigration in May 1938.

Heller met Mills and a contingent of Greenville visitors in Vienna in 1937. When the Nazis came into power a year later, the lives of all Jewish families in Vienna were in danger.

"I wrote to your mom for help," Heller said to Roberson. "Then for weeks I waited for a return. When the letter came, I'll never forget those first few words: 'I have not forgotten you.'"

Heller said he always envisioned downtown as "a people's place."

"I felt that a community has to have a core, a true center, if it's going to thrive," he said. "I'm so proud when I see families downtown. That's the most important thing — that the downtown is a destination for families. That's why I didn't want downtown to be a highway.

"Those who followed me did a great job in taking up the same dream. They added to the development with the Liberty Bridge, the Bi-Lo Center and the development of the Reedy River," Heller said.

The Greenville News wrote in its editorial marking the occasion:

Throughout his life, Heller has been a man of vision and of action. That's only part of his contribution, however. He's also been someone committed to bringing people together and inspiring them to serve others. Greenville would not be what it is today if Max Heller had not made this his home. This city can never adequately thank him, but the statue of Max on Main is a start.

The Greenville News Editorial, Abe Hardesty

Source: HEIDI HEILBRUNN/Staff

A statue to former Greenville Mayor Max Heller can be found in downtown's Legacy Plaza on North Main Street across from the Hyatt Hotel.

Source: THE GREENVILLE NEWS/File

Max Heller appears in this 1978 file photo.