Fran Heitzman often said he "failed at retirement."
He'd owned a dry-cleaning company and then a landscaping business, and his attempt at retiring in 1980 was just that: an attempt. Soon he was volunteering to serve as a maintenance man for Pax Christi Church in Eden Prairie. It was there that he got the idea for what became his work and passion for the last 33 years of his life.
A woman arrived at the church with a crib she hoped to donate. Pax Christi didn't need it, but Heitzman knew someone would. After calling around to some social services agencies, he set out to create his own bridge between those in need and those with excess. That was 1987 and the start of Bridging, an organization that collects donated items to help furnish homes of those in need. Since its founding, it's helped 95,000 households and now keeps about 10 million pounds of household goods out of the landfill each year.
"I equate success with how many kids will have a bed to sleep in tonight," Heitzman told the Star Tribune in 2009. "That's the greatest legacy I could leave behind."
He died Saturday, surrounded by family, according to the Bridging website. He was 94.
"It has been a true honor to serve alongside this most extraordinary man — so full of love, care and compassion for others," said Mark Wilkening, Bridging's executive director. "I will forever treasure my experiences with him and all the wisdom shared. He was a true champion for the community."
More than 300,000 people have gotten help furnishing their homes "because of Fran's vision," Wilkening said. More than half of those served are under 17 years old.
Heitzman grew up in Bloomington during the Great Depression and remembers his mother's propensity for sharing what little his family had — even the potatoes they collected from a nearby field were split among people who came by.
That giving spirit stayed with him. He once gave away a stove from the church to a family that didn't have a way to cook (Bridging soon moved out of the church's basement and now has warehouses in Bloomington and Roseville). He also once took silverware from his own kitchen to bring to families shopping at Bridging.
Long before decluttering became a trend, Heitzman pushed the idea that everyone has extra stuff and that stuff could be used by someone else.
In several interviews, he emphasized the simplicity of the idea at the root of Bridging: "It's not rocket science," he said.
In 2012, Heitzman received a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the MetLife Foundation for his contributions to his community.
He was particularly moved by stories of children who didn't have mattresses before their families came to Bridging. Heitzman also worked to make sure clients weren't made to feel they were just receiving a handout — he prioritized setting the warehouse up so families could browse and shop, choosing the items they wanted for their home.
At the warehouses, he often buzzed through the aisles in a motorized scooter with a sign that read "Founder Fran."
Heitzman's wife of 67 years died in 2013. Three years later, he told the Star Tribune that her death only bolstered his commitment to giving.
"I don't know how many days I have left to keep walking this Earth," he said in 2016. "My philosophy is to get out and do it."
Bridging has 5,000 volunteers who give more than 75,000 hours of their time to carry out Heitzman's mission.
Even without his presence, his mantra will drive those volunteers' work: "When good people get together to do good things, then good things happen."
Memorial and service details will be posted on Bridging's website, which includes a place to share memories and stories about Heitzman.
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440