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Max Heller Collection: Biography
Max Heller
Photograph of Max Heller from Max Heller Collection.

Max Moses Heller was born in Vienna, Austria on May 28, 1919 to Israel and Leah Heller. After graduating from high school, Heller began to work in a wholesale business where he was promoted to foreman and then buyer. In 1938, Hitler invaded and overwhelmed Austria. As the persecution of Jews became more virulent, Heller decided to relocate his family to the United States. A year earlier, he had been at an outdoor cafe and met five young women from Greenville, South Carolina, who were traveling on a European tour. One of the young women, Mary Mills, had given her address to Heller. Heller wrote a letter to Ms. Mills inquiring if she could assist with his travel to the United States. Several weeks later, he received a response confirming that she had found a job for him in the Piedmont Shirt Factory in Greenville. Heller quickly departed with his sister for the United States and shortly thereafter, was able to bring the rest of his family to safety in Greenville, South Carolina.

In 1945, Heller became Vice President of the Piedmont Shirt Factory, but within an abbreviated time, he decided to begin his own company. While this first business was not successful, in 1948 he began the Maxon Shirt Company. Heller began with sixteen employees and by 1962, he employed 700 people in the Maxon Shirt Company. In his personal life, Heller and his wife, Trude, had three children and he served as president of their local synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel. In 1962, Heller sold his business from which he officially retired in 1968.

Heller then devoted his life to community service. He was elected to the Greenville City Council in 1968, where he focused his attention on improving substandard housing and constructing affordable housing for all. Then, in 1971, he was elected Mayor of Greenville. A firm believer in the importance of bringing people together, Heller quickly desegregated all departments and commissions in the city government, leading Greenville in peaceful desegregation. In 1975, he also created the Mayor's Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering open to people of all faiths.

Under Heller's mayoral leadership, the revitalization of downtown became a priority. The site of the Greenville Woman's College was renamed Heritage Green and there the Hughes Main Library for Greenville County, the Charles E. Daniel Theatre, and the Greenville County Museum of Art were built. Main Street was converted from a four-lane thoroughfare to a two-lane street lined with trees and wide sidewalks. In 1978, the city of Greenville received a federal Urban Development Action Grant, which resulted in the construction of the Hyatt Regency and convention center on North Main Street. The convention center was named for Max Heller, and the Hyatt became an anchor around which downtown commerce flourished.

In 1979, Max Heller's second term as mayor ended and he decided to run for Congress from the Fourth District. He won the Democratic primary but was defeated in the general election. Governor Richard W. Riley asked Heller to serve as chair of the South Carolina State Development Board and for the next five years he worked with state and local officials to improve the state's economic climate. Heller was convinced that diversification was essential and during his term more than 65,000 jobs were created. He created the South Carolina Research Authority and working closely with Governor Riley, a number of major industries were recruited to the state, including Michelin North America, Union Camp and Digital Computer. For the first time, annual industrial recruitment reached the $1 billion mark.

In 1975, Furman University awarded Heller an honorary Doctor of Laws degree; in 1998, he received the Bell Tower Award for his exceptional achievements and service to the university. The University also named its award-winning student services program the Max and Trude Heller Service Corps. He received the Man of the Year Award from the National Council of Jewish Women in 1970. He also received the Distinguished Service Award from the Greater Greenville Ministerial Alliance, the Human Relations Award from the Greenville Human Relations Commission and the Whitney Young Humanitarian Award from the Greenville Urban League. The Greenville Chamber of Commerce named its prestigious neighborhood improvement award after Mr. Heller.

Source: Max Heller Legacy Plaza