Family, Friends Reflect On John Heller,
As 350 Pack Funeral In Foothills Atrium
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – “You spent your last day on Earth saving others,” his sister-in-law, Erika Heller, declared this afternoon at John Heller’s funeral. “We are so proud.”
Erika, along with John’s fiance Amber Roe, his Oneonta Job Corps colleague Kathleen Feeney, state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, and the Rev. Judith Thistle, pastor of Worcester’s Second Baptist Church, addressed 350 mourners – reflective, often tearful – this afternoon in Foothills’ Atrium.
At calling hours at Bookhout Funeral Home last evening, the line was up to 2 1/2 hours long.
Today’s speakers painted an affectionate picture of a young man who had grown into a brave, loving, dedicated adult, full of humanity and humor.
Seward spoke of a “remarkable life, cut short,” and announced the former Oneonta fireman and OJC counselor will be awarded the state Senate’s highest honor, the Liberty Medal, posthumously, honoring John’s heroism.
Heller, 38, rescued his four nephews and fiance early last Saturday morning from the burning third-floor at 4 Walling Ave., losing his own life in the process. A 34-year-old Oneonta man has since been charged with arson in the incident.
“The types of men and women who run toward danger instead of away from it are very special people,” said Seward.
Amber recalled that it was John who is responsible for her taking a job at OJC after a “scary” orientation speech. “You look scared,” he told her as she walked across the lobby, and calmed her down. “He was the one who got me to take the job.”
She recalled his patience; on trips, “every time I got us lost, he’d call it an adventure. It was never ‘John or Amber.’ It was always ‘John AND Amber.”
Feeney, who worked with Heller for 10 years, talked about crisis management: “I got louder; he got calmer.” He enjoyed working with the OJC students, so he twice turned down her offer to become a supervisor, reluctantly accepting the third one.
And she quoted reactions of OJC students, past and present – “our beloved family” – on learning the news of John’s passing:
• “He was one of the kindest souls I ever met.”
• “I never would have made it in the Job Corps without him.”
• And, “Rest easy, big dog.”
Pastor Thistle communicated thoughts from John’s parents, John and Gayle Heller of Oneonta.
After the son died, the mother felt a great weight in her chest; suddenly, it seemed to flow out of her body.
The father shared a vision he experienced after his son’s death, of a four-piece jigsaw puzzle. John was in the lower left piece; his dad in the lower right, and both of them in the top two pieces.
The lower left piece started to expand. As it got bigger and bigger and to fill up with images of family and friends, John said to his father, “I’m sorry, I have to go. And look at what you still have.”