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From Railroads to the Calatrava
Ben Heineman Sr., Chicago railroad titan, was a driving force behind Milwaukee's lakefront restoration.

How many people doom themselves to regret for not telling those they love just that until it’s too late? In a recent, remarkable burst of luck, I avoided that painful regret. 

For a
Milwaukee Magazine feature in the September issue, I reported how much my uncle, Ben Heineman Sr., meant to the three Drew siblings and his sister. And to remind Milwaukeeans of his major role in preserving our glorious lakefront for public use.

For much of his 98 years, Heineman did yeoman’s volunteer work for the nation, his adopted home state of Illinois, and for his sister’s fatherless family in Neenah. Not  to mention the countless charities. He was also an advisor to presidents, mayor and governors.

So I was astounded when he told me, as we walked through the Calatrava a decade ago, that saving that property from developers was his life’s proudest achievement.
He said, “The Calatrava transforms Milwaukee’s plodding 20th-century image into that of a thriving, modern metropolis. The land on which it stands was our Chicago & North Western Railway switching yard. I dreamed that Milwaukee could have a lakefront like Chicago’s and, as C & NW chair, I repeatedly begged Milwaukee County’s civic fathers to pursue that dream.”

Eventually he succeeded.

The War Memorial building, Calatrava’s $130 million masterpiece and Veteran’s Memorial Park replaced all of those railroad tracks. But very few people in 2012 know of Ben’s role in making that happen.

Permit a confession. I survived for half a century in journalism as something of a secret procrastinator, despite daily deadlines. For instance, I never wrote the story of how Heineman, a Wisconsin native turned mighty Chicagoan, his wife Natalie and Social Security kept my widowed mother and her kids alive and together. Typically, I lollygagged for months while putting together a piece about famous people I had only known briefly. But after Natalie Heineman died in 2010, I decided the couples’ story needed telling.

It was my good fortune that Milwaukee Magazine editor Cristina Daglas wanted the story. I wrote it in two separate articles, which were scheduled to run in the magazine’s October issue.

In July, the articles were moved up a month. With procrastination no longer possible, Cristina shepherded me along and artfully blended the two pieces into one.

As soon as the Quad/Graphics printers got it in early August, I e-mailed Ben a proof the day before we were to have dinner at his daughter’s (my cousin’s) vacation home near Eagle, Wis.

When Ben and I met there, he said that he appreciated my story and had read it three times. The next night he suffered a fatal stroke, and died two days later.

Decades after I first contemplated writing the story of his life and generosity to my family, Ben Heineman read it only days before his death.

The moral: Don’t procrastinate in celebrating people who made a difference. You may not be so lucky.

Lakefront photo courtesy of the City of Milwaukee. Ben Heineman Sr. portrait courtesy of the Illinois State Bar Association.

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