Poetry and Stories
Industrial park magnate pays his riches forward to area children
A s an extremely wealthy, self-made man who rose up from a meager upbringing to a long life of wildly successful endeavors — including raising four daughters with his wife Helaine, and now enjoying 10 grandchildren and a couple great-grandchildren — Isaac “Ike” Heller does not ask for much.
In fact, it seems that one of the few desires of the man behind Edison-based Heller Industrial Parks, Inc. is simply to be remembered as a good guy.
“We own a lot of properties, and I’m very rich,” he said. “I’m now on my second half of my 86th birthday, and I feel myself running out of gas and [that] my time of being alive is limited. And frankly, I’d like to be thought of as being a good person.”
If the families of children who attend the John Kenney Child Care Center have anything to do with it, it looks as if Heller will get his wish. He will donate $1 million to the center he has subsidized for years, a contribution that will continue to benefit children even after he’s gone.
When Heller created the center 25 years ago, employersubsidized child care centers were unheard of — so much so, in fact, that Time magazine covered the story.
But the man behind this groundbreaking move didn’t stop at providing for his employees. The center offers its reduced rates — thanks to Heller’s generosity — to all who live and work in Edison.
“It was always intended to be a benefit to the community,” said Donna Lambdin, director of education at the nonprofit center.
But if you ask him about the center, located adjacent to the Heller Industrial Parks headquarters on Mill Road, he insists that his motives were not altogether altruistic in the beginning.
At the time, the owners of a garbage dump neighboring Heller’s headquarters had plans for expansion that would bring them closer to his property.
“I didn’t like that,” he said. “The garbage people, in my mind … they weren’t very honest. If I could build a child care center right where they wanted to expand, I felt that they would have a hard time dumping on our kids — and therefore, we created it.”
However, with one look at the boyish grin on Heller’s face as he visited the children at the center, it was plain to see that its creation was more than a strategic move.
“Grandpa,” as he is known at the center, sang to the children as he ambled through a classroom among kindergartners, “Your old grandpa/Ain’t what he used to be/Ain’t what he used to be/Ain’t what he used to be.”
He watched as kids lined up for their turn to put a white handprint “snowflake” on the windows that line the hallway.
“Ta-da!” he announced as each child completed the task.
Equipped with an indoor gym, recreation room, five classrooms and two supplemental rooms within its 9,000 square feet, the center is also home to a huge playground, as well as vegetable and flower gardens that are incorporated into the curriculum.
“It’s beautiful, really,” Lambdin said.
Some 98 students, ranging from 16 months to kindergarten age, populate the center.
The teacher-student ratios exceed those required for state licensing, with degreed, certified teachers, along with two teaching assistants, in each classroom.
“We consider ourselves a school,” said Lambdin, who has served as director of education there for 24 of the center’s 25 years. The time clock that stands at child height near the entrance of the center makes it also seem like a workplace. Lambdin explained that it was Heller’s idea, and it helps school staff to keep tabs on which children are there and which children have gone home throughout the day.
“It’s just like they’re going to work,” she said. “And they are.”
The John Kenney Child Care Center — named for a local man whose daughters experienced health problems thought to stem from pollutants from the garbage dump — is a far cry from the one-room schoolhouse Heller attended growing up in New York’s Catskills region.
A twist of fate came when Heller and other students were given the opportunity to take a day off from school to visit the Brooklyn Technical High School. He liked it there, and ended up being one of two applicants accepted from a field of about 40.
“In a way, it made my life,” he said.
Although at the time, he hadn’t a clue about engineering, Heller decided to become an electrical engineer by following the lead of another student.
By the time he graduated high school, World War II was happening. Heller was drafted, and spent his time in charge of electronics.
“The officers thought I was a genius,” the Scotch Plains resident said. “I was a little kid, really, not by a long shot a genius.”
During his spare time while at war, Heller began making toys out of spare electronics parts. He gave them to his colleagues to send home to their children.
Once home, he decided to continue his toy making, and Remco Toys was born. It became the third-largest toy manufacturer in the United States, and Heller became a millionaire from selling it.
The small-town boy could have retired then.
“But if I stayed home, I would drive my wife crazy,” he said.
With a little knowledge of building, Heller thought he’d give it a go.
“I knew the difference between a 2-by-4 and a 2-by-6,” he said. “I said the simplest building you can build is a warehouse.”
With 16 million square feet of warehouse space under his belt to date (with most located in New Jersey), it is clear that Heller managed to learn the ropes of the business.
“It’s really got a reputation for being a quality enterprise,” he said.
The child care center only helps that reputation.
“It became one of his pleasures — to have it and be a part of it and see it grow,” said Ellen Carpenter, executive vice president of Heller Industrial Parks.
Over the years, Heller has taken pleasure in many ventures that helped others.
“Wherever we are, we try to help [people] in some way,” he said.
Annette Wexler, a longtime consultant to the company, can attest to that. After conducting countless interviews with the man and his family, she wrote “The Heller Family History.” According to Wexler, Heller has been honored with a slew of awards for his charitable works.
“He’s given so much to so many people,” she said.
Pointing out that the center provides help to working mothers, Heller said his donation will help to bring the rates down even further. (Now they are about $200 to $300 per month less than what typical child care centers charge.)
“We want to keep it going long after I’m gone,” he said. “I’m not trying to buy respectability, but again, I can afford to do that. If you can afford to do it and you don’t, you’re not a good guy. The practical thing you have to keep in mind is that you can’t take it with you.”