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My thoughts on Jerry Heckman

By: Don Loepp

January 22, 2013

Jerry Heckman has been a key leader in the plastics industry for nearly 60 years -- quite an accomplishment for someone who, as his Plastics Hall of Fame profile notes, "never invented a plastic product or application."

The truth is that Jerry was a lawyer -- an extraordinary lawyer, to be sure. But he identified with and embraced the plastics industry, and all the people and companies out there creating new products and applications. And he did so with tremendous enthusiasm.

Jerry died yesterday -- Jan. 21 -- at age 85. I've been getting emails and calls about him today, and I thought it would be nice to share some of those, as well as my own recollections.

(Also, make sure to check out the obituary that I wrote for PlasticsNews.com, "Lawyer Heckman, 85, remembered for influence.")

Heckman's relationship with the plastics industry dates back to 1954, when he was just a year out of Georgetown law school and he met Bill Cruse, known as "Mr. Plastics," who was then the first first full-time CEO for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.

Of course my own relationship with Jerry doesn't go back nearly that long. I started at Plastics News in 1991, and he was one of the first people I met who was part of the plastics industry. I visited Washington to say hello to all the trade association bigwigs -- it was my first trip for PN.

Adam Lashinsky, then our Washington bureau chief (and now an award-winning writer for Fortune magazine) arranged for a sit-down with Jerry.

By that point Jerry was already in the Plastics Hall of Fame, and he knew all the major players in the industry. Jerry surprised me right away when he talked candidly about the personalities who were leading the industry's key companies and trade associations. I remember walking out the door of Jerry's office and sharing a smile with Adam, who made some sort of remark about how great it was to talk with Jerry.

Jerry started to call me regularly when I began to write most of the newspaper's weekly editorial columns -- and when I was promoted to news editor, and then managing editor.

One of the great things about our talks was that Jerry offered historical perspective on just about any issue. Do you think plastic product bans are a new phenomenon? Jerry had been dealing with them since the 1950s. Chemical safety? He was recognized internationally as an expert.

Jerry was skilled at recognizing coverage that he liked in PN and drawing attention to it -- he wrote many columns over the years praising our coverage. When he liked one of my columns, he compared me favorably to Bill Cruse himself -- real praise, coming from Jerry. I never forgot.

But he didn't like everything, though. Jerry made it clear to me when he didn't like a story, or an editorial, or even one of our reporters. I imagine that he treated others in the industry the same way. It didn't bother me though. Perhaps it was the way he offered criticism, which most of the time seemed fair. Jerry understood how newspapers worked -- a point he repeated more than once.

A while back, when SPI and the American Plastics Council were feuding over a variety of issues, Jerry tried to help mend fences. It took years for that situation to improve, but I'm sure he took some comfort in the fact that the industry is more united today than it has been in at least 20 years.

The law firm he helped co-found, Keller and Heckman, said today in a statement: "Mr. Heckman will be well-remembered by all of us who had the pleasure of knowing and working with him."

Bill Carteaux, the current president and CEO of SPI, added: "Jerry Heckman had a tremendous impact on the plastics industry, and he will be remembered as one of the most influential people our industry has ever known. His work with resin manufacturers, processors, regulatory agencies and legislators is responsible for much of the growth that several sectors of our industry have enjoyed over the last 50 years."

I got an email from a long-time industry contact today who wrote, "I don't think it's too hyperbolic to describe Jerry Heckman as an 'industry giant.'"

All good points.

Let's leave the last word for that Hall of Fame profile -- the one that noted that Heckman never invented a plastic product or application.

The rest of the sentence really sums it up: "... he has certainly been as creative as any inventor in his work in building and maintaining a business environment that has permitted the stupendous growth achieved by the industry."