(Photography by Marie Constantin: William “Billy” Heroman Sr.)
William “Billy” Heroman Sr. once saved a man’s life.
His story is heroic and dramatic. It has all of the plot lines of a scene from Schindler’s List, but the best part about it is that Heroman doesn’t consider himself a hero. In his view, he was just being a friend.
It was 1945 during World War II when Heroman—who had just married his high school sweetheart, Janet, one month previously—was stationed in Europe with the Army. Heroman and his friends were captured by German Nazi soldiers, who separated the Jewish American troops from the non-Jewish American troops. In an effort to save his friend and fellow soldier, George Golman, from being executed for being Jewish, Heroman took Golman’s dog tags off, threw them away and placed a rosary around his neck.
Heroman is a man of few words when he tells this story at the round kitchen table of his Webb Park home, flanked by Janet and their son, William “Buzzy” Heroman Jr. The 93-year-old answers every question asked of him, speaking softly and slowly. He could easily be talking about an everyday task like buying milk at the grocery store. He is neither boisterous nor dramatic, but it’s not that he he isn’t proud of what he did for his friend—he just doesn’t see what all of the fuss is about. His friend needed help, and he helped him.
To say Heroman is humble is like saying LSU fans are fanatic.
“I enjoy helping people,” he says. “The way I was raised was to worry about someone else before you worry about yourself.”
Heroman is the founder of Billy Heroman’s Flowerland, a family-run business that employs nearly 90 people and generates $8 million in annual revenue. While Heroman’s son and three grandsons currently run the three Baton Rouge retail stores, Heroman opened the first flower shop on Perkins Road with $10,000 in 1955.
Plants are in his blood. He is a third generation business owner. His father ran a feed and seed store downtown until the early 1950s while his grandfather delivered flowers from his horse and buggy in the late 1800s.
Heroman was born and raised in Baton Rouge and is the second youngest of four boys. He is a Catholic High School graduate who grew up in a 1930s-era Baton Rouge when the Capital City’s population was 30,000 and the city limits ended at 19th Street.
“I biked everywhere,” says Heroman.
When he returned home from the war in 1945, he joined the East Baton Rouge Parish Lions Club, made a lot of friends and contacts, and took a job selling cemetery plots. When co-workers asked him for advice about planting flowers on grave sites, Heroman found himself drawn back into the family business and eventually opened his own shop in 1955. When asked how he grew his business, he points to his right hand, fingers pointing out like he is preparing to shake hands.
“Right here,” he says.
Heroman has been involved with the Lions Club for more than 60 years, and during that time he has worked with the Louisiana School for the Blind, has helped collect more than 3,000 pairs of glasses for the needy and aided handicapped adults and children in finding jobs.
He is philanthropic and has a big heart, friends and family say.
“Too big,” his wife says, adding that she will often find him sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of donation letters and his checkbook.
Friend and Lions Club President Zeke Dunaway says Heroman volunteers his own money, time and effort to decorate for the Lions Club Memorial Service held every five years in Baton Rouge. His generosity is refreshing, Dunaway says.
“Most people have no idea who does all of this,” Dunaway says. “He is the kind of person who I would love to see honored as he is the one who would least expect it and would probably say, ‘Who, me?’ He is just simply a beautiful person, and to know him is to love him.”
Heroman’s accomplishments easily span two full pages. He has served on dozens of boards, received just as many awards—including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his military service—and created a retail legacy for future generations of Heromans.
These days he is retired from the flower business and jokes that the big sales and nearly 100 employs are now “his headache,” pointing to Buzzy.
When asked about his biggest accomplishment to date, he immediately answers: “My family. I am most proud of keeping my family together.”
Heroman and Janet have four children, 19 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. And every Christmas the nearly 50 members of his family gather in their living room where the grandchildren and great-grandchildren sing Christmas carols before opening their gifts.
And every year on Christmas morning, up until Golman’s death in the late ’80s, Heroman received a 9 a.m. phone call from the Army buddy whose life he saved, who would relay two simple words: Thank You.