By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Last Christmas, Mike and Erika Heller bought a set of “beard ornaments” for John, Mike’s brother.
“We thought they were hilarious,” said Erika. “He just started putting them on, and my kids” – Donovan, Maddox, Macall and Rawley – “were showing him where else on his beard he could hang them!”
They found those beard ornaments, boxed up with the rest of his Christmas gifts, at his Walling Ave. apartment where he died after getting those same four nephews, as well as his fiancée Amber Roe,
Gabriel Truitt, whose trial starts Jan. 21, is charged with setting fire to the door of the apartment below, just four days after Christmas 2018.
“We put them in the memorial binder we made for him,” Erika said. “This year, mom Gayle had fake beards and beard ornaments for everyone to wear at Christmas. He wouldn’t have wanted everyone to be sitting around, bummed out. It was right up his alley.”
In the year since John’s death, the family and the community have rallied behind causes and communities John supported to keep his memory alive.
At Heller’s funeral, state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, said he would be introducing a resolution bestowing the Liberty Medal, the upper house’s highest honor, on Heller. “The next week, he read the resolution on the floor, which makes it a permanent part of the state record.”
The family founded the John Heller Hero Award at Valleyview Elementary School, $250 given annually to a graduating fifth grader. “We held a spaghetti dinner and pie sale in March to raise money for it,” she said. “And we raised $6,000.”
The first award was given in May to Gabby Cashman, who saved a fellow student with the Heimlich maneuver.
Truitt was arrested in April, and that same week, Erika found out that Maddox, who had third-degree burns on his arm from the fire, would need surgery. “The burns were so deep they wouldn’t heal,” he said. “They had to do an excision, and he’ll have the scars forever. But he’s a trooper.”
But there was good news in April too, when Oneonta Job Corps, where Heller worked as a life skills superVisor, dedicated “The Octagon” – a third-floor hallway inter-change – in his memory, with
photos and a plaque. “He was an important part of their team,” said Erika. “At their awards dinner, so many of his students got up and talked about the impact he had on their lives. He brought out amazing things in them.”
Heller was buried in Charlotte Valley Cemetery in June. “We all wore our ‘Johnny Strong’ shirts,” T shirts made in his memory, she said. “It was a good gathering.”
And in November, Erika and Melanie Ferrara, a fourth-grade teacher at Valleyview, got fire safety equipment into homes that were lacking. “We raised enough money to buy every requested item,” she said. “25 each of safety ladders and fire extinguishers.”
The Hellers have also used that time to come together as a family. “John and Amber were adopting a puppy from Ohio when everything happened,” said Erika. “But they still brought him here, and we threw a ‘puppy shower’ for her.”
Gus, a bulldog mix, is a registered support dog. “Amber is the strongest person I have ever met,” she said. “And she’s still our family. John may be gone, but we’re keeping her.”
On Oct. 12, what would have been their wedding day, the family gathered with Amber at Rustic Ridge Winery, where the couple had planned their wedding. “The owners, Laura and Rick Bennett told her, ‘if you want to do something, we’ll still be your venue.’ So we all got together to celebrate what should have been.”
“He’s always on our minds,” she continued. “We’re focusing on the good things, but we’re always thinking of him and missing him.”