Linda Heilpern: entrepreneur, creative cook

Entrepreneur, creative cook, friend to many

Linda Giana Heilpern died on August 27, 2015 following an unexpected hospital stay. She was 65.

She was born on March 21, 1950 in Yonkers, New York to Lillian Avezzano and John Weber. When she was quite young, her mother was very ill and eventually passed away from complications associated with lupus. As the oldest child, Linda took over household duties like cooking, cleaning and keeping track of her younger sister and brother. When she was in fifth grade, she met Michael Heilpern and they embarked on several years of good-natured academic competition. “Linda was always extremely bright,” her sister Judy said. “She used to get upset if she’d come home from a test and she only got a 99 out of 100.”

At 15, rivalry turned to romance and they began dating. She held down a waitressing job but still excelled in many school activities, including spending hours with Michael creating the student newspaper at Lakeland High School. She graduated with honors and was accepted at Vassar, but left after a year due to financial constraints. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, she and Michael embarked on their “hippie years.” They were the rare couple that could actually say they were at Woodstock, turning it into a family affair by bringing along Michael’s kid brother, Slim. Her future in-laws, Jack and Betty Heilpern, were very supportive of the young couple’s relationship, and later provided much-needed family stability after Ms. Heilpern lost her father to a heart attack as a young adult. Her future brother-in-law Slim and his wife Penny were also prominent in her life, even moving in with the Heilperns for a time in the ‘90s.

Linda and Michael were married in 1971 and three years later welcomed their daughter Harsimran into the world. Ms. Heilpern loved being a mother and often stated that she was never happier nor more fulfilled than during those early years of raising young Harsi. Her daughter’s memories were of a mom who seemed to be able to do it all.

“She had an unfailing work ethic and was totally devoted to caring for her family,” Harsi said. “She could cook anything, sewed clothing and home furnishings from scratch, was a whiz at word and trivia games, and always won every tickle fight. She knew how to buckle down and get things accomplished, but she always did it with a warm smile and a twinkle in her eye.”

The Heilperns practiced meditation, studied yoga, campaigned for peace, experimented with communal living and embraced the growing whole foods movement. Long before it was popular to do so, she aimed to feed her family an economical, healthy, flavorful vegetarian diet and threw herself into cooking partially out of necessity. She became particularly adept at preparing Indian dishes and while living in Boston and later Washington, DC worked at The Golden Temple Conscious Cookery specializing in Ayurvedic fare.

The family moved to California in 1979. They initially settled in Pomona and Ms. Heilpern founded a small company called Highpoint, Inc. She single-handedly created a thriving business from the ground up and was later joined by her husband, who helped to further shape and expand the scope of the operation. Together they nurtured and guided Highpoint as it evolved over three decades of ownership, from a small typesetting business to a web consulting company serving membership organizations, public agencies and local businesses.

The Heilperns always had their sights set on living in the City of Trees. They admired the college town not only for its aesthetic merits, but for its tight-knit community, rich in both arts and academia. They enrolled their daughter at Condit Elementary and The Webb Schools and relocated Highpoint in 1990. Five years after that, they finally realized their dream of owning a beautiful home in Claremont. With this monumental purchase came an unexpected bonus—the working relationship with their realtor and soon-to-be neighbor Cristina Cira quickly developed into an enduring 20-year friendship.

Ms. Cira remembers with fondness the hundreds of evenings she and her husband Sherban spent at the couple’s home, sharing memories and stories together after enjoying Linda’s creative (and sometimes daring) culinary offerings.

In 2003, Ms. Heilpern founded another company called Cooking Light with Lotsa Flavor. She catered events, gave cooking classes and for a time contributed a food column to the COURIER newspaper. The menu for one evening class in Mayan cuisine, which included ensalada xek (jicama, cucumber and orange salad), pescado pibil (whitefish baked in banana leaves with achiote paste) and a dessert of fried plantains, demonstrates the depth of her knowledge and her desire to understand the culture as a whole. At the time of her death, Ms. Heilpern’s cookbook collection was 500 strong.

Laura and Chuck Burt also became fast friends with the Heilperns after Mr. Burt rented a space in the Highpoint office. The two couples bonded over a mutual appreciation of jazz music, and Ms. Burt would also sometimes serve as Ms. Heilpern’s Cooking Light sous chef, helping in the kitchen and getting free cooking lessons in return. “Linda was one of the kindest, most loving people I ever met,” Ms. Burt said. “She didn’t judge people. And her cooking was a form of giving to others.”

Giving to others was definitely a theme for Ms. Heilpern. She involved herself deeply in organizations such as the Claremont Community Foundation, where she enjoyed putting on exotic spreads as part of the CCF’s annual Party Parade. She extended the same enthusiasm to her role with Community Friends of International Students, regularly organizing and providing meals for I-Place events and CFIS gatherings. As ardent conservationists, the Heilperns were hugely instrumental in the struggle to secure Johnson’s Pasture for the city and they also founded Sustainable Claremont’s Tree Action Group (TAG), working to catalog and secure proper care for the city’s trees.

Yet another neighboring couple that enjoyed Ms. Heilpern’s company and friendship were Sarah Romo and Rick Moore.

“She was not just a force in the community. She was also a force in the neighborhood,” Ms. Romo recalled, “On our walks together, she seemed to know everyone—and their dogs—by name. She was always reaching out to connect in some way, sharing food from her garden or recipes from her kitchen. I really appreciated her sensitivity and caring concern for others.”

Frequent travel to upstate New York to catch up with her family was difficult to coordinate, but she recently enjoyed near-annual visits from her brother John Weber and had a great time cooking up Italian feasts with his wife Susan. Ms. Heilpern’s sister, Judy Skirianos, is married to a man from the Greek island of Ikaria, known for its fresh Mediterranean cuisine and the longevity of its inhabitants. She and her husband Zaharias Skirianos are restaurateurs and so she, too, bonded with Linda over the topic of food.

“Linda was a sweetheart,” Judy said. It’s an assessment with which all those who knew her agreed.

Most everyone remembers the Heilperns as a dynamic couple, and there was no denying the strength of their partnership and love for one another. Michael’s death in February of last year, shortly after celebrating 43 years of marriage, was an absolutely devastating loss. Linda was able to find much comfort and strength in the outpouring of support from her immediate family and innumerable friends in the community. She spoke often to her daughter of the kindness of neighbors and the women in her weekly support group as well as among the members of her swim class and book discussion group at the Claremont Club.

Those who were used to seeing her with her faithful cocker spaniel Dante by her side will be pleased to know that he has found a forever home with a family friend and is currently charming the residents of Mt. Baldy.

Linda is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Harsi Heilpern and Ezra Parker; by her brother and sister-in-law, John and Susan Weber; by her sister and brother-in-law, Judy and Zaharias Skirianos; by her nieces and nephews, Jessica and Andrea Weber and Tina, Marci, Jack and Anna Skirianos; and by her brother-in-law Slim Heilpern and sister-in-law Penny Hanna.

A celebration of her life will be held on Sunday, October 25 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, 1500 N. College Ave. in Claremont. All are welcome to attend.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to Sustainable Claremont by visiting their website, sustainableclaremont.org, or to the Inland Valley Humane Society,  500 Humane Way, Pomona, CA 91766 or at www.ivhsspca.org.

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