BY HALLIE O’NEILL
As a young high school student, Tom Heger roamed Drake’s campus, completing odd plumbing jobs under the guise of his family-owned plumbing shop. Now, after contributing to the university’s infrastructure for roughly 50 years, Heger prepares to say goodbye to Drake’s plumbing systems.
The plumbing shop—Advanced Plumbing, formerly located at 2309 University Avenue—was created in 1900 by Heger’s grandfather, and when he passed away in 1952, Heger’s father took charge of the business. Heger then began working for his father while he attended high school. From 1900 to the late 80s, Drake frequently hired one of the three Heger men to complete plumbing jobs on the campus. The collaboration between the Heger family and Drake was well-established by the time Heger himself began contributing.
After graduating from high school in 1969, Heger filled his career with more plumbing and other handyman odd jobs. He continued to work for his father, and in 1982, he took on his first big project at the university—eight new bathrooms at Drake Stadium.
Sitting in a McDonald’s one day in the year 2000, Heger began contemplating the course of his career. He ran into a Drake staff member there who told Heger the university was looking for two supervisors for the new Sodexo food program. Heger figured he’d give the positions a shot, but when he approached the hiring committee, the roles had already been filled.
That’s when Heger was asked if he wanted to be Drake’s official plumber.
“It was a good deal for me, and it was a good deal for them, too, because they needed a guy to come in here and do what I did,” Heger said. “There was nobody else who was going to do it.”
The work Heger’s completed at Drake has been extensive but subliminally so, and much of it has flown under the radar.
“I had a real passion for rebuilding the place,” Heger said. “It needed a lot of attention. It really did. It had been neglected for so long. And I had the ability to change it.”
He decided to reset all 150 of the toilets in the quad buildings, a process that took two summers and required the help of his son. He also updated the “ancient” bathrooms in Harvey Ingham.
Most of the work he completed here was commissioned by Heger himself—he identified infrastructural needs and took it upon himself to make the changes.
“I’ve been the only plumber for all these years. I keep the place going,” Heger said. “Nobody else knows that much about plumbing, I sort of run my own show. It’s like being self-employed: no one’s telling me what to do or how to do it.”
But his work extends far into the Des Moines community, too. He said he can trace a line down University Avenue from Keo Way all the way to 73rd Street in West Des Moines and find at least a dozen places he’s helped upgrade. There are eight bathrooms in the Des Moines Airport with Heger’s mark on them, residential homes and dental clinics, local churches and hidden boiler rooms … the list goes on and on.
Not everyone recognizes or even notices the importance of work like Heger’s, but it’s truly crucial—people like him create the very foundations people and businesses grow from.
“People that are working with their hands are becoming fewer and far between, and the whole country’s going to pay for it,” Heger said. “We’re the people that build the structures and put in the plumbing and electric and all that stuff, and there’s a huge demand for that kind of person now. All of us guys are dying out.”
His legacy at Drake is long-lasting, though. He’s been the one behind the scenes for 17 official years, not including the estimated 30 he spent working under his father and grandfather.
Even though his practice doesn’t allow for a lot of social interaction, there are a few memories from Drake that will always stick with him.
He specifically remembers a morning when he was replacing the water line in the football locker room. While he worked, a Drake athlete walked into the room and struck up a conversation with Heger. Heger took this chance, of course, to explain his work to the football player.
“And when the conversation ended, he shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing,’” Heger said. “And I was just so impressed by this young man.”
These interactions, along with smiles and greetings from students in the residence halls, are some of the things he’ll miss the most. He’ll also miss the feeling of the campus in the spring and the soft-serve ice cream machine in Hubbell dining hall.
Although he parted ways with Drake on Friday, April 27, he has plenty of things to keep him busy in his retirement. He’s still going to work about three days a week for a friend’s plumbing shop, and he wants to travel around the U.S. to visit his widespread siblings.
He also races dirt bikes, a hobby he’s maintained since the ‘70s. And he’s still kicking—Heger and a friend usually take an annual trip to the Colorado Rocky Mountains to race at a higher level.
Heger said he “wasn’t cut out to go to college,” but he’s been employed by one for the better part of 50 years. He made it, after all, and Drake’s campus is a much better place because of him.
“I’ve always felt that I was destined to work here,” Heger said. “Because my dad worked on this campus, my grandfather did, I worked on this campus … and always in the back of my mind, I thought, well, if I have a problem, if I can’t find a job for whatever reason, I always thought I could go to Drake University and get a job. I really felt that way. And lo and behold …”