Brian Lundy was a frail 2-year-old, abandoned by his mother and destined for the Faribault school for “mentally disabled” children when Ellie Heller brought him to her Spring Park home in 1966.
The boy was among more than 60 foster children cared for by Heller and her husband, Bud, for more than six decades. Lundy, like several others, never left Heller’s home, an oasis of stability in the children’s fragile worlds.
“She gave me the opportunity to have a life of meaning and purpose,” said Lundy, now a successful film and video photographer, currently filming for the Travel Channel. “She told me, “I saw you and knew that [an institution] wasn’t right.”
Heller, 89, died April 18 in Pelican Rapids. She is remembered as a woman who was a forceful advocate for children, especially those with special needs, and a co-founder of the Minnesota Foster Care Association.
“She continued foster parenting until she was 87,” said Heller’s daughter Georgia Heller Duncan of St. Paul.
Many of the children Heller parented had autism, fetal alcohol syndrome or other severe disabilities. Said Heller Duncan, “She was one who kept them out of institutions.”
Heller, the daughter of Georgia and Filas Heller, grew up in rural Tennessee and graduated from Dyersburg High School, said Heller Duncan. She met her husband Einar “Bud” Heller — a World War II veteran from Minnesota — while he was in Memphis recovering from war wounds at the Veterans Administration hospital there.
The couple lived for 40 years in Spring Park, where Heller served on the City Council for several terms. Bud ran a jewelry store. The couple had two biological children and several foster children who permanently joined the family.
“Mom and Dad took the kids nobody else wanted,” said Chris Menning, one of the foster children who found a lifelong family with the Hellers. “They never told us who to be. They let us find our own niche in life whether they agreed with it or not and supported us to the end.”
Heller co-founded the Minnesota Foster Care Assocation in the 1970s, said Heller Duncan. She wanted to provide more training opportunities for foster parents and to give foster parents a greater voice in the placements of their foster children.
Heller also was a volunteer advocate for what was then called the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) in the 1970s, said Mel Duncan, her son-in-law, who directed the advocacy program at the time. Heller lobbied for children at a school in the western suburbs, he said.
“She’s the only advocate kicked out of the school for advocating too strenuously,” he said, laughing.
In 1985, Heller and her husband moved to Akeley, Minn., to be near their son Terry and help run his resort. Heller’s husband died in the mid 1990s, and Heller and her adult foster daughter Jody Smith later moved to Pelican Rapids. She enjoyed fishing, golfing, gardening and tutoring children at the local school, Heller Duncan said.
Two years ago, Heller was severely injured in a fall and moved to the Pelican Valley Health Center.
She is survived by the children and foster children who remained part of her family: Heller Duncan, Jody Smith of Fergus Falls, Terry Heller of Pelican Rapids, Christopher Menning of Beverly Hills, Fla., Richard Cagle of St. Paul, Brian Lundy of Lindstrom, Minn. and Bradley Heller Duncan of Woodbury. She also is survived by many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A celebration service will be held in June in Pelican Rapids.