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Michael Heilpern

Conservationist, community-builder, jazz lover

Michael Zachary Heilpern died peacefully at his home in Claremont on February 15, 2014. He was 63 years old.

He was born December 15, 1950 in the Bronx, New York. Much of his childhood was spent in the idyllic Westchester County neighborhood of Peekskill. He was the first child born to Jacob Heilpern, a certified public accountant, and Betty Wogman Heilpern, a kindergarten and special education teacher.

In the fifth grade, young Michael met the love of his life, Linda Weber. His equal in all ways, their good-natured academic rivalry eventually turned to romance and they began dating at the age of 15. Inseparable from that point on, they participated in many school extracurricular activities together and ultimately both graduated from Lakeland High School with honors. Just prior to his death, Mr. Heilpern and Linda marked their 43rd wedding anniversary and celebrated 54 years of knowing one another.

At a very early age, Mr. Heilpern’s parents instilled in him a love of learning and a deep appreciation for music. In addition to taking classes at the Berklee College of Music, Mr. Heilpern attended Wesleyan University, earning a bachelor’s degree in music education in 1975. Blessed with an inherent aptitude for music and a wonderful singing voice, he studied guitar, piano, harmonium, tabla and harmonica.

In more recent years, he became a dedicated amateur jazz vibraphonist, receiving instruction from noted musician and composer Eldad Tarmu.

Mr. Heilpern was a curious student of the world, a serious and sensitive thinker who enjoyed learning about different religions, cultures and avenues of social change.

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s marked what the Heilperns would later call their “hippie years.” They studied yoga, experimented with communal living, actively campaigned for peace and eagerly explored the burgeoning whole foods movement. Mr. Heilpern also undertook a musical tour of India, playing the tabla to large crowds in many towns.

Mr. Heilpern married his beloved Linda in 1971, and they celebrated the birth of their daughter Harsimran three years later. Harsimran, a Sanskrit word meaning “constant meditation on the universal music of God,” is an apt name for the daughter of a man whose life was so thoroughly steeped in music.

“My dad had a profound influence on my life, inspiring me to cultivate and pursue what I found meaningful, to be kind and compassionate to others, and to live an honest and ethical life,” she related.

Those who knew the couple can attest to the strong and loving bond that made them such a capable and dynamic team, whether raising their daughter, fighting for social change or working side-by-side to run a small typesetting business that they began in 1979 when they first moved to California. Their dedication to providing high-quality service to their clients was always balanced by a deep interest and concern for their employees’ well-being.

For over three decades, they have nurtured and guided Highpoint Inc. through a sea of industry changes to its current incarnation as a web consulting company that serves membership organizations, public agencies and local businesses.

Mr. Heilpern’s ongoing commitment to better himself and the business led to his enrollment at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management, where he earned his master’s degree in business administration in 2004.

Around this time, Ms. Heilpern decided to step away from the business to pursue her lifelong interest in healthy cuisine and become a personal chef. Whether eagerly cultivating specialty produce in their organic garden or helping her brainstorm recipes and promotional ideas, Mr. Heilpern was his wife’s biggest fan and never tired of her culinary inventions.

Mr. Heilpern had a passion for forging online communities, spaces where people with common interests, devotion to a shared cause or geographic proximity could connect. He was the creator and publisher of an innovative local community website called ClaremontCalendar.com, which features free, comprehensive listings of community events and local non-profit programs. He and his wife have personally sponsored this site as a labor of love so that Claremont residents can “enjoy and participate in the community in which they live.” 

Mr. Heilpern founded another community website in 2004, LAjazz.com, which serves as a resource for jazz musicians and aficionados across southern California. The site permits jazz artists and club owners to list their upcoming performances and emails subscribers notifications of jazz-centric events. The site is now largely regarded as the finest online jazz resource serving a single market in the United States.

Along with serving as publisher, Mr. Heilpern also wrote many articles for LAjazz.com. The following excerpt from a 2011 review of a gig by pianist Rique Pantoja demonstrates Mr. Heilpern’s gift for words and reverence for music.

“His melodies are so lyrical and organic that I was inclined to take them for granted, like the under-appreciated virtues of a beautiful friend you have known for many years. Seduced into a dreamlike state by the apparent simplicity of his opening lines, I was surprised to find just moments later that we were flying in the musical stratosphere in a realm of great rhythmic and harmonic intensity.”

In 2004, the California Jazz Arts Society (CalJAS) was three months into its first performance series—held in the Claremont Forum in the old COURIER building—when Mr. Heilpern learned about the organization. He was shocked that some of LA’s best jazz artists were performing in his backyard and that so few people knew about it. He became a tireless CalJAS booster, serving for a time as director on the board and donating his time and staff to develop a website for the organization.

“Michael’s love for jazz was enormous. He loved the freedom and creativeness of jazz, and appreciated the artists who went well outside the norm,” CalJAS president Dale Boatman said. “Michael’s early support, promotion, effort and generosity on our behalf were an integral part in the development of our organization. He will be missed by us, and the entire jazz community.”

Though frequently pressed for time, Mr. Heilpern, a Claremont resident since 1995, devoted countless hours to his community. Mr. Heilpern had a long association with the Claremont Community Foundation (CCF), serving on the board for a time and helping the nonprofit strengthen its branding. Over the years, he and his wife also organized many gatherings for the organization’s annual Party Parade fundraiser. CCF executive director Nicki Cleaves said working with Mr. Heilpern was a stimulating experience.

“Every time we achieved a goal, he would be pushing us to the next. He wanted us to reach our full potential,” reports Ms. Cleaves.

A steadfast conservationist, Mr. Heilpern made an impression on the physical landscape of Claremont as well as on the social landscape. He was integral in the fight to secure Johnson’s Pasture for the city.

Mr. Heilpern’s most recent environmental efforts involved founding Sustainable Claremont’s Tree Action Group (TAG) with the help of his wife.

Barnabas Path met Mr. Heilpern a little over a year ago when they both attended a city council meeting to protest the proposed removal of mature pine trees from the Claremont Club neighborhood. They became fast friends and soon were serving as co-chairs of TAG. Today, the group boasts 11 members who are providing valuable input to a city in the midst of updating its tree policy.

“One of Michael’s best qualities was his ability to keep this group together and grow it,” Mr. Path said. “He was able to take all these different ideas and blend them together in a way that kept our eye on the prize, which is to help the city in its efforts to manage our urban forest.”

Susan Schenk, who serves on Sustainable Claremont’s board of directors, has been impressed with Mr. Heilpern’s contribution to the ongoing conversation about how to care for Claremont’s leaf-scape. 

“He was really good at framing things in a tactful manner and getting people to talk about things,” Ms. Schenk said. “He helped things go more clearly, more smoothly.”

The last several months of Mr. Heilpern’s life were spent, in part, drafting a public policy document outlining a responsible strategy for the maintenance of this town’s trees. Kathleen Trepa is director of community and human services for the city of Claremont. She said that Mr. Heilpern’s input—which has included appearances at tree policy workshops as well as the submission of a thick binder with suggestions on maintaining and growing the city’s urban forest—has been valuable.

“I think what [TAG members] did is they challenged us,” she said. “Michael was passionate about trees. At the same time, he was very articulate and very moderated and respectful in how he presented his opinion to city staff.”

The Reverend Butch Henderson, who serves as chair of the Human Services Commission and of the city’s tree committee, said Mr. Heilpern’s contributions represent the kind of input that make the community function. 

“He in a way has become the conscience of our urban forest in Claremont,” Rev. Henderson said. “He had so much conviction and passion and he absolutely presented his concerns in a very gentlemanly but prophetic way.”

Many were aware that Mr. Heilpern battled with the challenges of a chronic and painful autoimmune disease, but that was hardly the most memorable thing about him.

Family, friends and even those who only knew him casually remember him for his generous heart and booming laugh, for his warm and outgoing nature, and for his unstoppable desire to experience and foster the truly transcendent elements of life.

Mr. Heilpern is survived by his wife, Linda Heilpern, of Claremont; his brother, Slim Heilpern, and sister-in-law, Penny Hanna, of Aptos, California; and by his daughter, Harsimran “Harsi” Heilpern, and son-in-law, Ezra Parker, of Vashon, Washington.

A public memorial service will be held at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden this upcoming spring on a date still to be announced.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Tree Action Group of Sustainable Claremont or to LAjazz.com.

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