Mike Heffernan died January 22 in Jakarta, Indonesia. He was 62 years old. Balanced on a scaffold, usually with a cigarillo dangling from his mouth, he painstakingly restored slate roofs around the world — in Hong Kong, Cuba, and Russia, as well as in Colorado and his own rural Vermont.
Professionally, Mike was known for precision and artistry: you only had to look up to appreciate the work of a master. Personally, he was more hidden. There was no LinkedIn profile, no Facebook account — no digital fingerprint anywhere. In his remote Vermont town, cellphone access was so spotty he had to drive to the library to conduct business from the parking lot. He eluded the modern world, and he preferred it that way.
His mother and an aunt raised Mike in Woodstock, Vermont. He had one sister. From early on, he loved reading and hunting; guns were utilitarian tools that instinctively appealed to the practical side of him. Watching old movies later in life, he took pleasure in critiquing the improper technique actors used during flashy shootouts.
Weapons were one great interest, while ironically saving lives was another. His romance with search and rescue began in high school, when Mike volunteered as a ski patroller on Suicide Six mountain in Vermont. It evolved through college, until, eventually, he was leading and training Vermont’s emergency rescue service.
When it came to his own care, though, he had no faith in doctors — he was a self-sufficient healer. Once a chainsaw carved a chunk out of his leg in Vermont, and he sewed himself up. After a scaffold collapsed in Moscow, he was hospitalized there for six months, while family worried he would never walk again. But returning home, he constructed and triumphed in his own rehab program. “Tougher than a box of hammers,” one friend said approvingly. “Tougher than a boiled owl,” Mike liked to say.
He was full of knowledge, much of it historical or philosophical. On long road trips to survey buildings with his daughter, the two shared cans of Coca-Cola and bags of Doritos, while he passed along the words of Winston Churchill or Mark Twain (he especially loved Mark Twain). Other knowledge was practical. He drilled her in the military alphabet, and —just in case — taught her how to take someone down with a sharpened No. 2 pencil.
Mike believed that self-respect widened into respect for others. Consummately polite, he arrived at work in tie and jacket, handwrote letters to clients, and, instead of phoning someone, often showed at their door — which really IS more respectful. When he called his daughter from the job in Jakarta (it was just too far away to show up at her door), he explained that a recent infection had left him with renal sepsis. But, he assured her, he was feeling better than ever. He died a few days later.
Did you know Mike Heffernan? Share your memories in the comments section.