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VanAndel institute for Cancer Research
333 Bostwick Ave. NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Life Story / Obituary
Always ready to lend a hand and a kind word, Robert LaVerne Heffelbower, Sr., was known for making friends easily and helping wherever he saw a need. He was never at a loss for words to keep new friends comfortable and never far from a project to keep his restless hands busy. He loved the outdoors and spent as much time as possible in the fresh air, but he loved it most when he could share it with his family. He cherished his family more than his own life and wanted nothing other than their safety and happiness.
The 1930s were years of struggle and loss for families the world over. No one was left untouched by the Great Depression, and the systematic persecution of Jews had begun in Europe, spreading concern and fear across the globe. Even in the midst of such hardship, some could find reasons for joy and even hope. Elvin and Artie (Curtis) Heffelbower of Clarksville, Michigan, were among those who had reason to look forward to the future as they were expecting their first baby in the summer of 1938. July 4 of that year was more than just a celebration of America’s independence; the hard-working couple was thrilled to welcome little Robert into the family that day.
Growing up on the family farm, Robert quickly learned the value of hard work and pitching in as he watched his dad manage the farm and his mother manage the home. He was later joined by two brothers, Roger and Allen. The boys spent much of their time outside hunting deer, pheasant, and small game and developed a love for fishing that Robert maintained for the rest of his life. They worked hard around the farm helping out with the pigs, chickens, and cows, but also managed to squeeze in time for pick-up basketball and football games with friends. Chores didn’t leave time for playing sports in school at Clarksville Elementary and Saranac High. Robert graduated from Lake Odessa High with the class of 1956.
After graduation, Robert joined the United States Air Force and worked as a mechanic, learning skills that served him well in later years. He served from 1956-1960 and was stationed in Arizona and Texas. While in Texas, he met a woman named Winifred Lamb. They were married in 1960 and had three children, Sheri, Vicki, and Sandy, who meant the world to Robert. They moved to Arizona and after Robert left the service, he worked as a milkman. After ten years, the marriage ended in divorce.
Robert moved back to Michigan and got a job at Kelvinator, a home appliance manufacturer, in Grand Rapids. Shortly afterward, he was hired at General Motors and remained there until his retirement thirty-six years later. During this season of life, Robert remarried and had two more children, Brenda and Robert. He and his wife later divorced.
In 1980, Robert met a realtor named Sharon Blakeslee. The couple dated for a couple years, fell in love and married on September 25, 1982 at Sunset Park Church in Wyoming, MI. Sharon brought two more children into the family, Darryl and Duane. They established their home in Wyoming, Michigan. They enjoyed gardening together and grew tomatoes, pickles, peppers, beans, and strawberries. They canned and froze their produce each fall and made jams and jellies to share.
Robert was not one to sit still for long and always had tinkering projects nearby or people to help. The only time he watched TV was during Detroit Tigers or Lions games, but no one was allowed near the remote if there was a chance that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders might be on. A proud member of the American Legion and AMVETS, Robert was always on the lookout for fellow vets, especially those in need. He was an avid bowler who once rolled a 300.
The family spent summers camping all over Michigan. Eventually they bought a cottage on Crystal Lake where they made countless memories boating, swimming, and fishing. Fishing was one of Robert’s favorite things to do and he spent a lot of time on his fishing boat with his brother Roger. Bluegill, salmon, and walleye were among his most common catches. He liked to grill and often made potatoes and onions.
After Robert’s retirement, he and Sharon bought a home in Hamilton, Florida, to escape the frigid Michigan winters. They made and kept many wonderful friends over their fourteen years there and missed them greatly when they sold the house in 2014. They enjoyed traveling to other places, too, taking cruises, visiting other countries, and traversing the United States with country music on the radio and the miles rolling by. They moved often, living on Crystal Lake, in Stanton, and in Allendale during the summer of 2016.
In late summer of 2016, the family was devastated to learn that Robert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Several rounds of chemo and radiation yielded negligible results, and in November it was decided that there was little to be done other than offer as much comfort as possible. Shortly after Christmas, Robert was provided with hospice care and on January 1, 2017, Robert died at home surrounded by his loving family.
The world is a place that can be filled with doubt and fear, but Robert made sure that his family never had cause to doubt his love for them. He leaves them with great memories of learning and laughing together, and the assurance that despite difficulties, he always wanted to be with them. His loss will be felt strongly, but it is not without comfort.
Robert is survived by his wife of thirty-four years, Sharon Heffelbower (Blakeslee-Mersing); his children: Sheri Barrera, Vicki Heffelbower (John McDonald), Sandy (Tom) Flores, Brenda (Chris) St. Arnold, and Robert (Becky) Heffelbower, Jr.; stepsons, Darryl Blakeslee and Duane Blakeslee; sixteen grandchildren and six great grandchildren; his brothers, Roger (Nancy) Heffelbower and Allen (Robin) Heffelbower; and many nieces, nephews, and friends.
Cremation has taken place. A service to celebrate Robert’s life will be held on Tuesday, January 3, 2016 at 12:00 noon at Heritage Lifestory Funeral Home – 2120 Lake Michigan Dr. NW. Contributions to VanAndel Instute for cancer research. Please visit Robert’s personal web page at www.lifestorynet.com, where you may share a favorite memory or photo or sign his online guestbook.