WINCHESTER — Dressed in a green cap and gown, Robert Heilman sat with the graduating class of 2019 during Friday’s commencement ceremony at Umpqua Community College.
The Myrtle Creek author and former timber worker was selected by the college’s board of education to receive an honorary associate degree.
“I’ve actually spent more time present (in classes) than attending,” Heilman said in a press release. “I took a writing class at UCC in 1981. I decided it wasn’t going to help, so I left and went back to writing.”
After the ceremony, Heilman’s friends gathered at McMenamins Roseburg Station Pub to “toast and roast” the honorary graduate.
“The fact that he got that award was wonderful,” Heilman’s friend Bob Allen said. “It was good to see Bob Heilman, who’s always in coveralls and a baseball cap, looking spiffy out there in his bright green gown.”
Allen read out a proclamation for Heilman and gifted it to the graduate. Heilman also received a number of other gifts from his friends, including a dossier of Bob cartoons and a New Yorker front page with Heilman’s image edited in.
Heilman has been making his way back to the college since the mid-1990s when he became a guest speaker at many of the school’s writing courses.
His writing career started in the late 1970s when an injury forced him to stay home to raise his young son.
“I became a stay-at-home dad while my wife worked,” Heilman said.
He has written three books. His first, “Overstory: Zero,” is about real life in timber country. His second, “The World Pool,” is a collection of essays, and the third book, “Children of Death,” covers the migration of his family through Eastern Europe and North Dakota.
“I have been a blue-collar worker or manual laborer my entire life,” Heilman said. “Education is a byproduct of process and a degree is not a measure of competence. We are all self-educated and I study people all of the time.”
Honorary degrees are awarded to recognize people whose lives serve as examples of the college’s aspirations for its students and whose services have benefited the college.
Heilman said it was a flattering and unexpected gesture.