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Nelson County District Judge Robert W. “Bob” Heaton read at 6:30 a.m. Mass Monday at St. Joseph Church, as he had countless Mondays before. Heaton and his wife, Lee, attended morning Mass almost daily.
“He was always noted for the clarity of his voice, that he was easily heard and easily understood,” the Rev. Bill Hammer remembered.
This Monday, Heaton returned to his pew after reading from the Book of Zechariah. But just before the consecration, Heaton collapsed.
Mass came to a halt. Two people administered CPR as congregants awaited an ambulance. Nelson County EMS transported Heaton to Flaget Memorial Hospital.
“After they took him to the hospital, they continued Mass and obviously prayed very much for him,” Hammer said.
Heaton died Monday morning, at the age of 65, of an apparent heart attack.
Heaton is survived by his wife of more than 41 years, Lee, a daughter, Carrie, and a son, Rob.
District 57 Court was canceled Monday, and Circuit Clerk Diane Thompson struggled to come to terms with Heaton’s death.
“I’m shocked and saddened,” Thompson said Monday morning. “He was a pleasure to work with. He was highly regarded by his peers. He was currently serving as president of the Kentucky District Judges Association. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours of policy discussions with him, and … he’s the only person I personally know who kissed the hand of Pope John Paul II.”
Hammer believes Heaton, a devout Catholic, drew strength from his faith.
“I think that’s one of the reasons, clearly, he was at Mass, is trying to pray for guidance and wisdom and asking for God’s help as he was making decisions,” Hammer said.
A Bardstown native, Heaton knew what he wanted to do with his life from a young age.
“He knew from the time he was a young boy that he wanted to be an attorney,” Lee Heaton said. “He had a tremendous love for the community and a desire to work with it.”
Bob Heaton attended St. Louis University, where he met his wife, then attended law school at the University of Kentucky. He returned to Bardstown in 1974 and operated a private practice, primarily as a defense attorney, with several partners through the years.
Heaton served on the advisory board of the Tom McKay Center beginning in 1974, was on the board of the Nelson County Association of the Handicapped, was a member of the Knights of Columbus, and was a former member of the Army National Guard, Charlie Battery — only a few items on a long list of community contributions, Carrie Heaton said.
He served as Bardstown city attorney for 19 years, and was elected judge of District 57 Court in November 1998, County Clerk Elaine Filiatreau said. He ran unopposed for the position since that time.
Heaton met his heavy workload with grace and resilience, Dick Heaton, Bob Heaton’s younger brother, said.
“He really did grow into the job. He went, obviously, from being a new face on the bench to today, 14 years later, one of the more respected judges in the system,” Dick Heaton said.
“He was firm, but he would give them a second chance as long as he felt like they were trying,” Lee Heaton remembered.
He treated his family with the same strength and compassion, Carrie Heaton said.
“He was the rock. He was always there. There never was a time where I felt like I was alone, because my dad was always there, and I think he was that way for a lot of people in Bardstown,” she said.
Bob Heaton underwent carotid artery surgery about a month ago, but his health seemed to have improved, Dick Heaton said.
That’s why his death Monday came as such a shock.
But knowing that he spent his last moments in the church where he was baptized comes as a comfort to Dick Heaton: “What better place for him than where he practiced his faith and participated in the Mass, to go that way?”
Faith serves as a guide for Lee Heaton just as it did for her husband.
“God knows best,” she said. “We may not understand, but we have to have faith.”
ERIN L. MCCOY can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.