Two desserts a day…that’s what George Heitler credits for reaching his 100th birthday. On September 3, 2015 to be exact, this accomplished and energetic Plymouth Harbor resident will celebrate this landmark with his wife Florence, who’s 95 years of age herself. But that’s not the only milestone being celebrated this summer – on July 30, 2015, Medicare and Medicaid celebrated its 50th anniversary. What do these two have in common? George Heitler.
As a child, George always admired Abraham Lincoln. “I thought he was a good man, an honest lawyer, and I respected that he charged modest fees,” he says of the former president. Despite his apparent interest in law, George first thought he’d try his hand at pre-med. That didn’t last long though. In college, he performed his first dissection and decided, “That’s not for me.” It was then that he settled on law school.
In 1938, George graduated with his Juris Doctor from Columbia Law School. But it wasn’t until 1957 that he joined the national Blue Cross Association as in-house legal counsel. Oddly enough, it was George’s friend who first applied for the open position, but when he was interviewed, instead suggested George for the job. It was as simple as that. George joined the Blue Cross Association as Assistant Secretary and House Counsel, and when he retired from his post in1981, he had moved his way up to Senior Vice President and General Counsel.
As a senior officer of the Blue Cross Association in 1965, George proudly remembers that he had a hand in drafting Medicare and one of the biggest programs in U.S. history, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Not surprisingly, George counts this among his proudest accomplishments throughout his 100 years. He remembers the hard work that he and his team put into it, and the seemingly endless months of drafting and redrafting of the bills. “Few people know that in the first draft of Medicare there was only supposed to be one unit. But AMA (American Medical Association) opposed it. They wanted two parts – Part A and Part B, which is what we have today.”
When reminiscing on these times, Florence instead remembers their silver bowl – a “gift of forbearance” given by the Blue Cross Association (BCA) to the wives and families of those involved. “The country got Medicare and I got a silver bowl,” Florence jokes as she pulls the bowl out from her kitchen cabinet. Engraved, it reads, “In Grateful Recognition of Your Months of Forbearance – BCA, 7–1–66.” While she jokes, Florence has a constant smile as she listens to George talk about this piece of their history.
Even outside of his involvement with Blue Cross, George never seemed to experience a dull moment in his life. When he was a toddler, he participated in a “baby beauty contest.” When he was 20, he met Florence over the back fence of his parents’ home in Brooklyn – she was 17, attending college at Adelphi, and visiting relatives next door. One rainy day, Florence’s aunt asked George to drive her to the subway, but he instead drove her home, and the rest was history when they were married on April 21, 1940.
Back in 1938, George’s first job out of law school paid him only $10 per week. After he passed the bar exam, he graduated to $25 per week, which is when he and Florence were married. They lived in a Brooklyn apartment that cost them $58 per month. At that time, Florence had just passed the social service exam and was working for the Child Welfare Bureau. When George was asked about the initial years of his career, Florence instead replies, “Well, he was really interrupted by World War II.”
When war was imminent, George volunteered for the Navy but was rejected due to very poor eyesight. He later volunteered for the Army, but was again rejected. After that, George and Florence were blessed with their first son, James. However, after Pearl Harbor, George was drafted and accepted by the Army for limited duty. On the day that he reported, he was the last man in line selected for limited duty in the U.S. only. Despite that classification, George wound up at the port of embarkation to go overseas and join the 1st Army. “Had I just gotten out of line to go to the bathroom, I wouldn’t have been chosen,” George remembers. But, as luck would have it, or as George calls it, “his dumb luck,” one of his college classmates happened to be one of the ranking officers that day. He took George out of line and rejected him.
The reassignment center then assigned George to serve as Chief Clerk and Legal Advisor to the 4th Service Command Rents and Claims Board at Fort Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina. While living there, George and Florence had their second son, Richard. But, George’s light-hearted tone quickly changes as he shares that the group of 1,600 men, of which he would have been a part, were involved in the invasion of Normandy. Of those 1,600, an astounding 1,200 lost their lives.
After George was discharged, the family made their way back to New York. It was then that George took a break from law, and worked for his grandfather’s smoking pipe manufacturing firm. After some time, George made his way back into law. He became a member of the Ethical Culture Society of Long Island, New York, where he met the leader, who became his dear friend and eventually led him to the job at Blue Cross. While working for the Blue Cross Association, he was instrumental in the taking over of the Blue Cross Commission from the American Hospital Association. This eventually took the Association from New York to Chicago, and the Heitlers followed suit.
“Chicago is a wonderful city,” Florence says. “You could do and be anything you wanted to. It was also a much more welcoming city for getting involved.” In their time in Chicago, George served on the board of the Chicago Public Library, while Florence spearheaded the efforts of the Citizens Information Service (CIS). She worked with people of all ages, informing them of their rights and eventually gaining a three year government contract. At the end of its contract, the CIS was one of only 12 organizations to receive commendation.
George retired from Blue Cross at the end of 1981, and immediately joined a private practice law firm in New York, where he stayed for only four years. “The nature of the practice changed and I wanted out,” George remembers. This time he retired for good, and it was around the same time that they visited Sarasota with friends. After this visit, they were sold. “There wasn’t a doubt in our minds that we wanted Sarasota,” Florence says. They bought a condo on Longboat Key and split their time between here and a summer home in Southbury, Connecticut.
When George and Florence moved into Plymouth Harbor in 2000, their children made them promise not to sell the condo. They kept that promise, and today, the Heitlers’ sons have bought the condo underneath, expanding the space for their growing family – including the Heitlers’ four grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. George and Florence’s motivation and drive continued once they were here at Plymouth Harbor. Together, the two have served on numerous committees and have participated in a laundry list of groups and activities. Florence has served as the Chair of the Plymouth Harbor Dining Committee and as Secretary of the Residents Association.
George served as Colony Director for five years, and prides himself on leading the Smith Care Center monthly birthday bash, the low vision support group, and Plymouth Harbor sing-alongs. George has been passionate about singing all throughout his life, running numerous choral groups, and play acting as a member of the Plymouth Harbor Players. The two also make it a point to stay active, playing bridge and only recently giving up tennis – Florence played tennis for 90 years of her life, and George played up until a few months ago, retiring at the age of 99 and a half.
Outside of Plymouth Harbor, George brings the joy of these sing-alongs to other continuing care retirement communities in the Sarasota and Manatee areas. The list of their contributions and involvement in the community throughout their lifetime is almost endless, but to name a few, the Chicago Henry Booth House, Heritage Village Master Association, The Ethical Culture Societies of Chicago and Long Island, the Law Committee of the American Ethical Union, and board member and vice president of the Democratic Club of Longboat Key.
As you would expect, George places an enormous emphasis on the importance of ethics, admiring Abraham Lincoln as much today as he did as a child. The tradition even carries on with his family, as each child, grandchild, and great-grandchild that ever played Abraham Lincoln in a school play uses the top hat that George wore on his wedding day. While 2015 has blessed the Heitlers with numerous highlights this year – George’s 100th birthday, Medicare and Medicaid’s 50th anniversary, and the Heitler’s 75th wedding anniversary – it still has one more milestone in store for this couple. This coming November, on the day after Thanksgiving, George and Florence will celebrate their 15th anniversary of living here at Plymouth Harbor.
It’s hard to beat a year like 2015, with so many exciting and noteworthy moments, but if anyone can do it, it’s George Heitler. Happy birthday, George! Thank you for sharing your 100 inspiring years with us. We look forward to seeing what 2016 holds.