Mel Heifetz, honored as the humanitarian of the year at the 2015 Indigo Ball, started his work in the 1950s as the owner of the Humoresque Coffeehouse on Sansom Street.
“That café was welcoming to all sorts of people. It was known as one of the friendliest cafes on that block,” said Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center, while presenting the award Oct. 10 at the National Constitution Center. Indigo Ball is a fundraiser for William Way.
Bartlett said Heifetz would let interracial couples enjoy meals together, and this brought the Humoresque to the attention of Frank Rizzo, a police captain at the time who later became mayor of Philadelphia. One day, Rizzo showed up with officers and dragged all the patrons to the police station.
“Many people would’ve just sat back and taken that kind of abuse,” Bartlett said. “But not Mel.”
Heifetz reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. The organization took his case and he won.
“He often fought back against abuse,” Bartlett said. “He’s a true fighter.”
Heifetz, who grew up in a working-class Jewish family in South Philadelphia, became a real-estate and hotel mogul. He contributed the major donation that allowed William Way to pay off the mortgage on its building at 13th and Spruce streets in the Gayborhood. He’s handed out water during the annual Philly Dyke March, and contributes his time and money to places like The Attic Youth Center and Mazzoni Center, among other LGBT programs and services in the city.
“Your commitment to ensure that our leaders value diverse communities, including our LGBT brothers and sisters, has shaped the city we live in today,” said Mayor Michael Nutter in a video message played at the event. “Your efforts to keep open vital and necessary spaces, like the William Way Community Center, have undoubtedly saved many lives.”
City Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents the First District including the Gayborhood, and state Sen. Larry Farnese read statements of congratulations for Heifetz. When Heifetz was called to the stage, he received a standing ovation. Guests clapped for nearly a full minute.
“A simple thank you would’ve been more than enough,” he said. “I feel like the pope up here with all this.”
Heifetz thanked Bartlett, the William Way board of directors, cornerstone donors in the LGBT community and anyone else who has contributed to the community.
“None of this that I’m getting applause for did I do by myself,” he said.
Heifetz said he wanted to share an experience that sticks with him. Once, while visiting the White House after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Heifetz met cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point and servicemembers on active duty. Many of them brought their partners. He asked if they had any problems being out in the military, and was happy to hear the men and women report that they were well-accepted.
“I can’t help but have tears in my eyes when I talk to these kids,” Heifetz said. “If there’s any reward for all the years and all the things that I’ve tried to do, it’s seeing the young people today being acknowledged like that.”
William Way gave out five other awards during Indigo Ball: to Stimulus Productions for creating diverse nightlife especially for queer women; the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund as community organization of the year for its HIV/AIDS work; the Chester County family of Braedan Lange for creating the LGBT-affirming lacrosse Courage Game; the Rev. Jeffrey Haskins for starting the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church that especially caters to LGBT people of color; and Rhonda Cook for leadership and service.
New additions to the William Way staff were also celebrated. Candice Thompson was introduced as chief operating officer, a new position. Ben Jones stepped into the position of development director and R. Eric Thomas is now program director, and has already started such events as “lean-in” professional mixers and the Netflix and Chill LGBT film series.
Comcast/NBCUniversal served as the presenting sponsor for this year’s Indigo Ball. Other sponsors included the IBEW Union, Philadelphia Foundation, Philadelphia FIGHT, MetLife and PECO.