Civic leader, mayor of Greenville. Heller was born on May 28, 1919, in Vienna, Austria, the son of Israel and Leah Heller. Israel Heller, a native of Poland and a veteran of World War I, operated a sales business with his wife. After graduating from gymnasium (high school), Max Heller was apprenticed to a novelty store owner, rising to the position of buyer, and attended business school part time.
On March 11, 1938, Austria was invaded by the Nazis, the elder Hellers lost their business, and Max lost his job. He convinced his parents the family must leave Europe. He wrote to Mary Mills in Greenville, whom he had met in August 1937, and she secured a job for him from Shepard Salzman, president of Piedmont Shirt Company. In August 1938 Max and his sister Paula arrived, followed by their parents. Trude Schonthal, Max’s fiancée, left Vienna in 1939 and eventually came to Greenville with her mother by way of Belgium. Her father escaped from a concentration camp in France and joined the family. Max and Trude Heller married in 1942 and have three children.
Heller began work at Piedmont Shirt Company as a stock clerk and eventually became vice president and general manager. In 1946 he established the Williamston Shirt Company, which he sold in 1948. He subsequently formed the Maxton Shirt Company, which he sold in 1962 but continued to work for until 1967.
Meanwhile Heller became active in community affairs. A member of Congregation Beth Israel, he served as president of the congregation. He became concerned about youthful offenders and urban housing for the poor. In 1968 he was elected to the Greenville City Council, and in 1971 he was elected mayor, serving from 1971 to 1979. He championed the desegregation of city hall and membership of municipal commissions, and the building of community centers. To provide more economical public transportation, he led the creation of the Greenville Transit Authority.
Pressed to run for reelection in 1975, Heller agreed if the business community would support and match federal funding for the redevelopment of downtown. The city received one of the first Urban Development Action grants ($7.4 million) and revenue sharing funds ($1.5 million). The convention center in the Hyatt Regency Hotel was named for Heller.
A candidate for Congress in 1978, Heller won the Democratic primary, but lost the general election to Republican Carroll Campbell. Anti-Semitic and nativist overtones characterized the campaign. In 1979 Governor Richard Riley appointed Heller chairman of the State Development Board. In five years Heller oversaw the creation of 67,000 jobs and the South Carolina Research Authority, and the recruitment of diversified companies such as Michelin North America, Union Camp, and Digital Computer. Under his leadership the annual recruitment of industry hit the $1 billion mark.
Back in Greenville, Heller continued to be involved in a host of civic improvement efforts, such as the creation of the Alliance for Quality Education to aid public school improvement. In 2002 Furman University honored the Hellers by naming its endowed community volunteer program the Max and Trude Heller Collegiate Education Service Corps.
Huff, Archie Vernon, Jr. Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Little, Lloyd. “Providing Visionary Guidance for the Upstate.” Greenville News, December 13, 1992, upstate business section, pp. 1, 6–7.