Even though Bill Roach was the oldest guy in his Chicago Fire Department EMT certification class in early 2002, the then-58-year-old healthcare attorney dove into volunteering on the busiest rig on the city’s tough west side.

It was shortly after Sept. 11. Roach wanted to do something.

“If the war came home to Chicago, I wanted to be able to do something useful. Being a lawyer is fine, but those skills aren’t too helpful when injured people need treatment,” he said. “In a 24-hour shift on the rig, we’d easily have 16 to 18 alarms. It was a lot like being back in Vietnam.”

Getting behind causes he cares about has been at the forefront of Roach’s volunteer work, which has spanned several decades and continues today. He was honored this month in Dallas with a Gold Heart award for his work with the American Heart Association’s Midwest Affiliate and its national board of directors.

Roach was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, in what he said was a typical Southern upbringing. He cut yards in the hot summers until he found that beekeeping was a lot easier and more lucrative. He continued with that through junior high and high school.

“There was no comparison,” he said. “The bees do all the work until you need to harvest. I read a couple of basic texts on beekeeping and the bees taught me the rest.”

His honey money was sweet, giving him the small bankroll he needed to start college in New York City. But when he got to Columbia University in 1962, “I was like a kid falling off a cotton wagon,” he said. “Competition was fierce, and it took my freshman year to figure out what to do to survive.”

After Roach graduated from Columbia, he served as a naval officer in Vietnam. After active duty, he attended Vanderbilt University School of Law and became interested in health law. That led to a master’s program at the University of Pittsburgh in hospital law.

“Both the subject matter and the time to complete the master’s – 12 months – appealed to me,” he said. With degrees from Vanderbilt and Pitt, he started his law career as the general counsel for two large academic medical centers in Chicago. After a few years in-house, he became a partner in leading Chicago health law firms until he retired in 2010.

Along the way, he got involved with the AHA, joining the board of the former Chicago (later Midwest) Affiliate in 1992.

“I didn’t come to the AHA because of any family experience with heart disease or stroke,” said Roach. “I volunteered at the urging of an important academic medical center client. But I quickly learned what the AHA accomplishes, and I’ve been aboard ever since.”

Understanding the impact of heart disease on all Americans was an education, said Roach, who felt like he was contributing to something vital from the start. “The need to reduce cardiovascular diseases is critical for our republic,” he said.

He cites, for example, an AHA report that says the annual cost to treat heart disease in the United States will grow to $818 billion in 2030.

Roach also has been impressed with the AHA’s evolution over the years.

“It was very much a white glove, silk stocking, traditional national charity when I joined,” he said. “But over the years it has morphed into a more aggressive, dynamic, global organization willing to take more risk in support of its lifesaving mission, while providing increasing support for heart and stroke research, effective educational programs and expanding fundraising.”

He pointed to the organization’s “tough positions on issues like salt and tobacco. It’s not your grandmother’s AHA.”

Roach served as National Board Chairman in 2011-12 and now chairs the Strategic Advisory Committee for Voices for Healthy Kids, a national advocacy organization funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the AHA, which is supporting policy campaigns to help children maintain a healthy weight. He calls childhood obesity a “crisis,” pointing to the likelihood that many in the next generation will likely not outlive their parents.

“In three years, Voices for Healthy Kids has achieved important policy wins on safe routes to schools, sugar-sweetened beverages, school menus, kids’ meals in restaurants, food advertising in schools, after-school physical activities and access to healthy foods in underserved communities,” he said. “We’re getting the attention of policymakers, but we have much more to do.”

Even though Roach has long since given away his beekeeping equipment – after a short-lived attempt to revive the hobby during the harsh Illinois winter of 1980 – he still ponders those bees from time to time.

“Some of my neighbors in our condominium in downtown Chicago have suggested I install a couple of hives on our roof. Maybe I’ll do that,” he said. “Urban beekeeping is all the rage these days.”

Photo by Tim Sharp