It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Robert Heap last week, who died at the age of 72 after a short illness.
It is some time since I last saw Robert, maybe a year. He was an ever-constant presence at the IoR evening, papers or meetings. The last time we met he spoke enthusiastically about a project I am working on to write the history of the IoR.
“We have many papers stored over at Cambridge”, he said. “Come and spend some time there. We can go through them together. I think this is a wonderful project and I will be happy to get involved.”
He added in his unassuming and very modest way “That is, if you want to”.
I was about to travel and we never did get to have that follow-up meeting in Cambridge, but that very brief conversation just about sums him up to me - he was always well informed, enthusiastic, polite, unassuming, and remarkably modest for someone who had achieved so much.
I once asked him how he came to be awarded his MBE and for what. “Oh, I really don’t know” was his answer. He said it with that playful half-smile that he always seemed to have. It revealed a keen sense of humour that was so sharp yet subtle that it often passed many people by. I recall at one IoR AGM he said something serious but with a smile and humour, and the person next to me turned and asked in a hushed voice “is he joking?”.
He was an extremely committed industry man. He must have devoted a huge amount of time and energy to the IoR and other industry associations that he was involved with, and when I say involved, that is exactly what he was. A part President of the IoR and chair of numerous committees, he was not one to sit on the side-lines. His influential work for the industry is well documented and should not be underestimated, although he himself would always play down his achievements. He once mentioned in passing while we were talking about how we had spent the weekend that he played the viola for a local orchestra. “It is a very small orchestra, and of course, playing a viola is not like playing first violin” was his reply to my surprise.
Robert was always quick to offer support, encouragement and praise. I recall him arriving at an IoR Council meeting and saying quietly to me before we sat down that I had brightened his train journey that day as he had enjoyed reading a magazine article of mine so much.
“You write so well, it really was interesting to read, you must write more,” he said.
In a few words, he had made my day and made me feel important. He didn’t always wait until we met, and it was not unusual to receive an email from him in a similar vein.
Robert never mentioned his own writing ability and strange as this may sound now I didn’t associate him in my mind with the RD Heap who had authored a book in the late 70s called simply ‘Heat Pumps’. I read the book long before I ever met Robert and it influenced me enough for me to build my own ground source heat pump at home from redundant scrap refrigeration components to heat my garage in the early 1980s. It was a make-shift affair and mystified the neighbours when I dug up our flower bed to lay the underground pipe. It lasted successfully for two winters, but the compressor gave up after that - it was living on borrowed time anyway. I think Robert would have found that amusing but I never did get to tell him.
If I had to describe Robert in one word, it would be gentleman. He was highly educated, intellectual, an accomplished engineer and successful business man. He achieved all this with a courtesy and grace that set him apart as a man of distinction, a real gentleman in every sense of the word.
My thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues.