In a simple but beautiful wooden box, hand-carved by students in Berea’s Woodcraft program, sit the stubs of checks made out to the College 55 years ago. This expertly crafted box occupies a place of honor in Bill Heffner’s Columbus, Ohio, office—a constant reminder of his father’s generosity and admiration for hard work.
“I don’t really know how my father learned about Berea College; I can only guess how he did,” explained Heffner, CEO of Agg Rok Materials—a position held by his great grandfather, grandfather and father before him.
Heffner assumes his father was talking about work ethic with friends in the construction industry, when one of them perhaps mentioned a neat little college in Kentucky where students had to work while receiving a tuition-free education.
“I know that would spark my father’s interest because I’m truly my father’s son,” Heffner said. “So, he started giving them money, and the first check he wrote was for $250. I still have the stub for that check and the check number. That would be equal to $2,000 today. The next year he gave $300.”
In 1967, the Heffner Family Foundation was just two years old and only giving to four organizations, Berea College being one of them. Today, the foundation supports more than 40 organizations, and Berea is the only one of the original four to which the Heffner family still contributes. Berea’s commitment to its students and expectation of work well done continue to resonate with Bill like it did for his father.
“Our company is 121 years old—we started in 1900,” Heffner said. “It is only because of work ethic and never saying ‘I can’t accomplish something’ that we are where we are today. My great grandfather, my grandfather, my father never went to college and were very successful. I’m the first one that ever went to college. So, I know that system works. I think Berea does a better job than most instilling a lot of things we believe that got us 121 years in business.”
Excited to see Berea students succeed after college as well, Heffner began a $100,000 internship endowment to support the College’s internship program. “We realized that Berea had a ready-made system, so I told Chris [Schill, Berea senior philanthropy officer] to get me the paperwork, and I’ll fund it,” he said.
Though Heffner’s father had visited Berea and stayed at the Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant, Heffner made all his contributions without stepping foot on Berea’s campus himself. So, in October 2021, he agreed to visit the campus, where he was given his keepsake hand-carved box and the opportunity to see his financial support in action. He talked with students and business professors and learned that the need was great, but so were the students.
“These students are eager to do things, and I’m hopeful that with great leadership from [associate professor of management] Dr. Maurice Reid, they will have some great opportunities,” Heffner said.
“Hopefully it will give them a better opportunity to be successful,” Heffner continued. “And I hope Berea College can keep up its tradition and give these students a better opportunity. They are coming from poor families with very tough conditions—I know because I’ve spoken to some of them—and I hope it makes a difference.”
For Heffner, continuing his father’s 55-year legacy of giving to Berea helps him stay connected to his father’s heart. “Many times I say, ‘What would my dad do?’” Heffner said. “The thing I can say, knowing my dad very well, he’d say, ‘You are fine if you are helping people.’ I want to help people.”