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The Holiday tree is now decorated and on display in Downtown Racine. The tree remains on the corner of 6th street in Monument Square. Along the shores of Lake Michigan, a green pine shines for all to see. It’s dazzling lights are hard to miss. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on the annual Racine Holiday parade, but has not stopped the tree tradition from continuing.

For many Racine residents, 2020 has been full of hardships and loss. The Heller Family, in particular, faced one of their hardest losses in 2018, when there loving husband, father, and grandpa died, unexpectedly. The Downtown Holiday Tree has been donated in memory of Rick Heller, former Chief Building Inspector for the City of Racine. 

Rick Heller’s Roots in Racine

Rick Heller was born at the Naval base in Cook County, Illinois. His entire life was spent in the heart of Racine. It’s where he married the love of his life, Therese Heller, who worked for InSinkErator for 39 years. The two happily lived together in the same house for 4 decades. Along the way, they added children and grandchildren to the mix.

When Rick Heller first got the tree, it was a tiny seedling in a Dixie cup. The tree was planted in the backyard of their home, until Rose (Heller) Grauwels was due for arrival. An addition was built on their house to meet the needs of their expanding family. As their family grew, so did the tree. The was pine relocated to the front of the house.

Rick’s children, Krystyn (Heller) Hirsch and Jake Heller, made their way into this world solidifying the choice to move the tree as a good one. Caring for this tree was one of Rick’s pleasures, along with caring for his grandchildren, whom he adored.

More than a Tree

The tree at the Heller’s residence

The tree was a staple in Rick Heller’s life, serving as the backdrop for many family photos and a place to gather when celebrating life’s best moments. Racine resident’s may even recall taking the trolley to visit Christmas lights in Racine County. The trolley would make a stop on Spring Street to view the Heller’s home, known as the “gingerbread house.”

The Heller family poses in front of the tree they donated in memory of Rick Heller

This pine was decorated from the ground up serving as a outdoor Christmas tree. His wife, children, and grandchildren can agree that Christmastime hasn’t been the same since his passing. The tree being on display in Downtown Racine is one way that this family is feeling connected to their loved one. This tree is more than just any ole tree, it’s Rick’s roots in Racine.

What started as seedling in a Dixie cup has made its way to center stage. Therese Heller says “Rick would be proud to say that he grew that tree into what it is today.”

Christmastime in the City

The Heller family has hosted Christmas Eve celebrations annually since 1982. Their Christmastime traditions including having Santa and Mrs. Claus making a stop to the Gingerbread house, opening presents, eating baked goods, and most importantly, being with the ones whom they love the most.

His grandchildren, Natalie Carbajal, Joseph Grauwels, Jackson, Brooklyn, and Cooper Hirsch have fond memories with their grandpa who they referred to as “Buppa.” Carter Hirsch never had the chance to meet his Grandpa, but no doubt a piece of Heller lives within him.

His tree wasn’t just any tree among the Heller’s landscaping. The Heller family sympathizes with every Racine resident who has lost a family member this year. Nonetheless, with every obstacle that faces our community, this tree is a beacon of hope.

Donating to Downtown

As former employee of the City of Racine, Rick Heller had a great connection with the members of this community. His daughter, Krystyn says “my dad was able to carry on conversations with anyone and loved telling stories. I think this is one he would absolutely love to tell.”

He’s shown his dedication time and a time again to the city. With that being said, his wife could no longer care for and decorate the tree like Rick did. When the Downtown Racine Corporation was seeking a donation for the 2020 tree, Therese Heller knew the perfect tree for submission.

Heller’s Legacy Continues

In memory of a influential Racinian, the Heller family invites you to visit the tree on Monday, November 23. It would have been Rick’s birthday. To celebrate and honor him, please consider spreading holiday cheer and get outdoors. Some of Rick’s favorite activities involved getting outdoors.

Share a story, like Rick would love to do, about your favorite Holiday tradition with others. This holiday season may look different. Loved ones may or may not be gathered with you at the dinner table, but they are always in your heart.

The tree is finally decorated. For one last time, Rick’s tree is brightly lit, sparkling and shining for the community. His legacy will carry on and the memories will last forever.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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