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SBA on track to make Capt. Thomas Heitmann's dream a reality

St. Bede Academy boys and girls track team on the grounds of Thomas John Heitmann track.
St. Bede Academy boys and girls track team on the grounds of Thomas John Heitmann track.

PERU — St. Bede, family and friends of fallen Marine Thomas Heitmann have been determined to see his heartfelt dream of inspiring young track and field athletes become a reality. The academy is on track to do so, and construction will begin before month's end.

In 2011, U.S. Marine Capt. Thomas John Heitmann, a Mendota native and 2002 SBA graduate, died serving his country at the age of 27, a year after he began a project to build a track facility at St. Bede.

Heitmann and Capt. Jeffrey Bland were tragically killed on Sept. 19, 2011, during a helicopter training mission at Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Pendleton in Southern California. During the final stages of preparing for combat in Afghanistan as a Marine Corps AH-1W Cobra pilot, his helicopter hit a red-tailed hawk that shattered an essential control line to the main rotors, broke the helicopter into three pieces and killed both pilots.

Construction of the track will begin this spring, before the 15th anniversary of Thomas’ high school graduation and will be complete this fall.

Bret Dannis, a member of the track team and 2016 state champ for 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles said, “Hearing the great news that St. Bede is getting a track couldn’t make me and the team happier. It is one of the things I was told would be done when I decided to come to school here. I know it will make the difference for our track team and teams in the future.”

Dannis, a junior, is currently ranked No. 1 in Illinois for both the 60-meter hurdles and 200 dash 2A and will train and compete during his senior year on the newly constructed track.

This past year, with a strong media focus, brought forth by SBA, the fallen marine’s dream went coast to coast. In October, Abbot Philip Davey, OSB, visited Thomas’ sister Rachel Heitmann-Christensen, a 1995 SBA graduate, in San Diego and both sat down for an interview with CBS News 8 in San Diego just prior to Veteran’s Day. Abbot Davey’s visit with Thomas’ sister also included a trip to Camp Pendleton where Thomas was based, trained and flew from. An article by Carl Prine was also published in the San Diego Union Tribune.

Shortly after that, Ted Gregory, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, spent the day in the Illinois Valley to cover the story of Thomas’ track dream. The full page story and other media covered received tremendous attention especially from veterans with big hearts to help one of their own.

In an effort to bring Thomas’ dream to fruition, the Heitmann family through fundraising and donations has contributed a lead gift of $200,000 along with a $250,000 gift from SBA that includes the site and value of initial site work necessary to construct the track.

Phase 1, which includes construction of the track, fencing and seeding, will be completed for use next spring. Fundraising continues on for Phase 2 which will complete the project, and includes equipment, timing devices, a storage facility and spectator seating and rest rooms.

Donations have been received from military veterans, families of fallen marines, alumni, friends and track athletes. Heitmann's story has touched the hearts of those with the desire to make his dream become a reality.

“We are excited to know that it won’t be long before we have a track to train and compete on,” said SBA track and field coach Ron Barnes.

Heitmann began this effort as a way of giving back; now his family, friends and high school have carried that torch to reach this exciting day. In this spirit of giving, SBA plans to share this venue with the Illinois Valley by hosting community running events where all with a love of track and field can experience Heitmann's dream.

To learn more about Heitmann and his track dream, visit

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