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Solar Hill

Solar Hill Historic District Association


(276) 466-9265

'Never too Busy to Help...'



BRISTOL, Va. – John Heffernan found kayaking late in life, but when he did he grabbed hold of it with a passion.

At 50, he was a city planner whose main focus was improving the quality of life in Bristol.

It was 1988, and he told his wife he was considering three options for his midlife crisis: an expensive sports car, an affair with another woman or kayaking.

"He made it so there was no choice," his wife, Nancy Heffernan, said.

John Heffernan, 66, died Saturday while navigating a difficult stretch of the Russell Fork River at Breaks Interstate Park in Dickenson County. It was a river he’d run countless times before as he developed his love for the sport over the past 15 years.

"Everybody I know hopes that when it’s time to go you can go doing what you love," said Steve Ruth, a friend who’d paddled down the Russell Fork with Heffernan more than 50 times.

A thrifty man by nature, Heffernan took up the hobby gradually and only because he found a boat that wouldn’t cost him much.

But his wife said he quickly realized it was a pursuit worth an investment, and he became a fixture at local outdoors stores.

He balanced his kayaking habit with his work for the city. In nearly 30 years in the city’s Planning Department, he was involved in everything from the retail development at Interstate 81’s Exit 7 to minor zoning variances for property owners.

"He was never too busy to help anyone," said City Manager Paul Spangler. "The smallest action that came to his office was given as much attention as if I wanted something or a council member wanted something."

Heffernan worked endless hours securing grants for community development projects. His son, Paul Heffernan, remembers times when his dad would stay up all night writing a grant application and then make the trek to Richmond to be sure the paperwork arrived by the deadline.

Heffernan was instrumental in the revitalization of the Solar Hill neighborhood. When Heffernan and his family moved into a house on Solar Street, the neighborhood was rundown and had a bleak future, Councilman Doug Weberling said. 

Now, it’s one of the city’s three historic districts and has received state grants to continue its gentrification.

"There is no question that his involvement with Solar Hill years ago is the reason it is the shining point it is today," Weberling said.

Even after he retired four years ago, Heffernan was a fixture at City Hall. He always was willing to come down to the planning office to find an errant file or help figure out a vexing zoning issue, Planning Director Shari Brown said.

It was work that often went unnoticed by residents, but it was vital to the development of Bristol, Spangler said.

"It would have been very different stepping into this job cold," she said. "He made it easy."

It all came down to his passion for people, Nancy Heffernan said. In everything he did he was looking for an opportunity to help others.

So it was no surprise that as he became more expert at kayaking he began helping others learn the details.

Debbie Briscoe of Bluff City, Tenn., arrived at the Russell Fork with a boat but little training. She met Heffernan on the water, and without ever being asked he began sharing his knowledge.

"I was new, and he took the time to help," she said.

Friends estimate Heffernan taught at least 100 people to kayak during his years on the area’s rivers.

He also brought his son into the life of kayaking. Paul Heffernan was reluctant at first.

"I wasn’t spending much time with my parents and didn’t much want to, truth be told," he said.

But he gave it a try, and soon, like his father, was hooked. The two went on to spend weekends on kayaking trips, traveling all over the region to find rivers to run.

"It was then that I really started to realize what an amazing father I had and how lucky I was," he said. "He truly became one of my best friends."

Nancy and John Heffernan were married 38 years. Their relationship developed even faster than his love of kayaking.

One of her friends had planned to go on a date with John but had to cancel. She asked Nancy to take her place.

The two spent the evening together, and by the end of the night, he had proposed. Six weeks later, they were married.

Paul Heffernan once asked his father, an otherwise pensive man who took time to gather his thoughts before speaking, how he could make such a radical decision so quickly.

"He said he knew after three hours that this was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with," Heffernan said.

John Heffernan’s funeral will be held at St. Anne Catholic Church at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Visitation will take place for two hours before the Mass.