Defense Official Became Folk Music Benefactor

By Kay Coyte (reprinted with permission)

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, February 22, 2009; Page C09


Victor Heyman, a Defense Department official during the counterculture 1960s, emerged in later years as a widely recognized "folk angel."

His generosity ranged from financial backing of folk music venues and festivals to no-strings loans to down-on-their luck musicians, to thousands of acts of random kindness. Dr. Heyman, a Rockville resident who died Jan. 6 at 73, was the financial guardian of countless folk performers nationwide.

    Victor Heyman, with wife, Reba, was a civil servant in the 1960's,

    and a financial guardian to struggling folk musicians

When Vermont songbird Rachel Bissex was dying of cancer in 2005, Dr. Heyman in short order spearheaded a two-disc tribute CD of her songs performed by some of the best of her contemporaries, from Patty Larkin to The Kennedys. More than $50,000 was raised for a college fund for Bissex's children.

When singer Tom Prasada-Rao, then of Takoma Park, was trying to make an impression in the New Folk competition at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, Dr. Heyman and his wife, Reba, made T-shirts bearing Prasada-Rao's likeness, sat in front-row seats and created a buzz that helped him win that 1993 competition.

When Dr. Heyman won a $500 grand-prize drawing from CD production company Oasis Disc Manufacturing, he handed it over to Texas-based singer-songwriter Jenny Reynolds, who applied the windfall to her next recording, "Next to You."

When folk concert and festival producer Maureen Harrigan adopted four special-needs children, then fell on hard times, the kindness came in a series of checks quietly slipped to her: help with utility bills, tuition for an after-school karate program, a rare dinner out. "Vic was our guardian angel," said Harrigan of Martinsville, W.Va. "He was always there to sustain you, to do whatever he could to keep you alive."

"That kind of giving is in itself inspiring," said Reynolds, whose gift from Dr. Heyman had come out of the blue. 'It wasn't a status symbol for him to be generous. No one was ever asked to name a wing of a building after him. . . . What was important to Vic and Reba was helping people, not helping themselves."

In recent years, Dr. Heyman was slowed by the effects of Parkinson's disease. But he continued to attend shows (always sitting in the front), keep up correspondence and support the singer-songwriters he considered his adopted children. (Dr. Heyman is survived by his wife of 52 years as well as their four children.)

Since his death, the tributes have flowed for the sometimes gruff but always lovable man who was a folk-scene fixture. The Heymans traveled the world, always finding the local folk music club, much as birdwatchers check off a list of bird sightings. "I looked at their calendar one time," Harrigan said, "and they had gone to 276 folk shows, and it wasn't even the end of the year yet."

Victor Kenneth Heyman, a native Washingtonian, received a doctorate in political science from Washington University in St. Louis and served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Southeast Asia programs in the 1960s.

Starting in the late 1970s, he and his wife operated Heyman Mailing Service in Rockville, a direct-mail company with clients from arts organizations to politicians. At the business, which they sold in 2001, they offered low rates to mail tour schedules for folk musicians.

While Dr. Heyman traced his interest in folk music to the genre's revival after World War II, he became more interested in singer-songwriters who often were hard to categorize: folk/acoustic/roots/Americana/pop. Dr. Heyman, who reviewed CDs for Sing Out! magazine, would sing the praises of a new artist, always with great enthusiasm.

"It wasn't like he was promoting a label or trying to sell CDs," said David Eisner of the Institute of Musical Traditions, a folk arts preservation organization. "He just loved the music."

Dr. Heyman's preference for under-the-radar assistance to folk musicians presented a quandary for concert presenters who recently staged a tribute for him. "A moment of silence just doesn't seem appropriate," said local folk music promoter Scott Moore, whose Focus Music was a co-sponsor of the Feb. 2 event. "Vic would have preferred a moment of music."

The tribute, attended by about 100 friends and folk fans, raised funds to create Heyman Grants to help aspiring musicians travel to Kerrville. The 18-day Texas festival is known internationally as a mecca for singer-songwriters and a launching pad for performers, including Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams.

At the Feb. 2 show, Eisner recalled walking into Heyman Mailing Service. "It looked more like a recording studio than a mailing office," Eisner said. "There were photos of musicians everywhere, many of them standing with Vic."

Musicians also received Dr. Heyman's professional advice, sometimes stern but always honest, said Cary Cooper of Dallas, one of many singers whose second CDs were financed in part by Dr. Heyman. Then there was his sense of humor.

Ellen Bukstel, a Florida singer and graphic artist, was caught nodding off while awaiting a turn onstage. Dr. Heyman printed the snapshot on a coffee mug and mailed it to his friend.

"It's typical of Vic because it just arrived out of nowhere on my doorstep, and it made me laugh -- and he knew it would make me laugh," said Bukstel, who is holding a Heyman tribute show at her house late next month.

Musicians also have weighed in with a song.

"Travel Well," by the husband-wife duo of Prasada-Rao and Cooper as well as Amy Speace and Jagoda, includes a pledge to Reba Heyman ("we will hold her in the circle") and a fond farewell:

Fare thee well gentle child
You have carried us this far.
Now we'll let you lead the choir
From your seat among the stars.

(Editors note: Kay Coyte wishes to thank Chris Slattery of the Maryland Gazette for forwarding his article on the Focus tribute to Victor Heyman to the Post editors)

© The Folk Club of Reston/Herndon, 2005
Created by Armen Karimian