The heart of the Harts

by Jan Gillis ('07)

Photo from JMU Alternative Thanksgiving Break 2015 rebuilding in New Orleans

By Martha Bell Graham (‘03P,’08P,‘12P)

From Winter 2016 Madison.

G.J. (’84) and Heather Hart at the unveiling of the logo for the Hart School.

G.J. (’84) and Heather Hart’s $3 million-plus gift to James Madison University to name the Hart School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management means more than a large donation and infinitely more than a single naming. Their gift’s greatest impact is the partnership it creates among a philanthropist, a corporate executive and a university that will, over time, change millions — yes, millions — of lives.

Making lives better

When Randall Hart, the 14-year-old son of G.J. and Heather Hart, visited L.A.’s Skid Row, he learned something that his father and mother had long known: People are people, no matter their station in life. Homeless. Suburban. Poor. Executive. Rich. Struggling. Uneducated. Degreed. Deep down, everyone is the same, and everyone has needs. It’s a truth Randall’s parents live.

“They care for all of them, every single person ... trying to make their lives better,” Randall says, effusively, when he talks about his parents. “They’re like the dynamic duo.”

Widely recognized for his corporate leadership in the hospitality industry, G.J. is the CEO of California Pizza Kitchen. Prior to leading CPK, he steered Texas Roadhouse through a decade of unprecedented growth. Heather is the driving force behind CPK’s transformative Inspired Acts, an organization within the company that is described as “high-impact community service.”

Photo of G.J. and Heather Hart at CPK eventG.J. and Heather Hart at last year's Inspired Acts Day.

Transformative service

During last year’s Inspired Acts Day, more than 800 CPK employees, along with the Hart family and a contingent of JMU students and faculty, transformed a part of California’s Camp Pendleton into an oasis for hardworking service families by building playgrounds, painting facilities, landscaping and a host of other projects.

Randall knows his parents well, of course, from the inside of their tight-knit family of six, which includes Randall’s three older sisters. He describes his parents’ life — and the life they have given their family — as “a constant giving circle of life.” Whatever anyone needs, Randall says, they give it to them. “Actions speak louder than words,” he adds. The teenager feels so strongly about his parents that, at the end of the JMU ceremony to name the Hart School and unveil the new logo on Oct. 9, he grabbed the microphone and offered an extemporaneous and eloquent affirmation. “I want to be exactly like them,” he concluded.

G.J. and Heather live much of their lives in the rarified, jet-setting world of boardrooms and plush offices, yet both are always described as down-to-earth, extremely kind and humble.

‘By instilling the values that G.J. and Heather live on a daily basis, we know that our students’ lives will change.’ — Michael O’Fallon, director, Hart School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management

That was Michael O’Fallon’s first impression. The director of the Hart School of Hospitality, Sport, and Recreation Management found G.J. to be surprisingly personable. “He didn’t want to be Mr. Hart,” O’Fallon says. “He wanted to be G.J.”

O’Fallon was intrigued by the man who peppered him with questions about JMU’s school. He wanted to know all about it, O’Fallon remembers, especially the hospitality curriculum since that’s the business he’s in.

Opportunities for hands-on education

And it was G.J. who first suggested the collaboration between JMU students and his corporate world. Following a classroom talk, an event that had brought the former student back to campus for the first time in years, G.J. told O’Fallon, “We’ve got to bring your students [out here],” referring to the annual CPK Operators Conference, which includes the Inspired Acts Day of Service.

G.J. was as good as his word. Since that early conversation, dozens of students have traveled to participate as the Harts put their corporate leadership philosophy and giving spirit into action. The result is a priceless brand of hands-on education.

“He knew the experiential learning experience that students would get is something I can’t mimic in the classroom,” O’Fallon says.

And so began a rich and invaluable opportunity for JMU students to learn about the professions they were entering — an experience G.J. promised would change their lives. O’Fallon would come to learn that G.J.’s and Heather’s successes came from pluck — not luck.

Photo of G.J. and Heather Hart G.J. and Heather Hart celebrate the naming of the Hart School with JMU President Jonathan Alger.

A commitment to community and family

G.J. learned the values of hard work and education from his parents. His father, an immigrant from The Netherlands who came to the United States seeking freedom, was fluent in five languages. The Harts moved to the U.S. when G.J. was young, eventually settling in Harrisonburg, where the elder Mr. Hart served his new community as a dedicated and respected police officer. One can surmise that the father’s service, dedication to community and commitment to family influenced the son.

For G.J., education was important. While attending JMU, he worked for Shenandoah Valley Poultry Company. After seven years, he was general manager of the company, honing a talent for management along the way.

Working and going to school, however, was not easy, G.J. remembers. There were many hopeless days, but his mother continuously inspired him. G.J. told the audience gathered for the naming of the Hart School about her: She was originally from Indonesia and survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

“Through all those dark days,” he said, “it was her perseverance that I always put back in my mind.” Heather grew up on the opposite coast, a California girl who shares G.J.’s determination to give — a personal mission that is woven inextricably into the family’s fabric. “My mom has an acute awareness of someone in need,” says Ashley Hart, the younger of two Ashleys in the Hart’s blended family. That awareness is almost always followed by action. But as Ashley says — quoting her father — “What you give, you get back hundredfold.”

The opportunities to give back that the Hart family’s success has afforded them is a philosophy they share generously — and eagerly.

“Those two individuals as a couple,” O’Fallon says, “are the most inspirational that I’ve ever seen. They are extremely humble. They’re extremely caring, and they’re giving, not only in their professional lives but also in their personal lives.”

Photo of G.J. and Heather Hart “Those two individuals as a couple,” says Michael Fallon, director of the Hart School, “are the most inspirational that I’ve ever seen.”

Creating positive change

It’s a philosophy O’Fallon has seen in action. When G.J. left the C-suite of Texas Roadhouse to lead CPK, he brought many ideas for positive change. Attending an early corporate meeting with G.J., O’Fallon remembers that his big ideas, not surprisingly, were met with some skepticism. After all, change can be threatening. But when O’Fallon returned three years later to a similar event, G.J. and Heather both got standing ovations.

To O’Fallon, G.J. has become more than a benefactor; he is a close and trusted mentor. In fact, it was none other than G.J. who encouraged him to apply for the director’s position.

“Unquestionably, G.J. is a mentor of mine. I feel extremely confident to pick up the phone, asking him any question.” That kind of commitment reflects G.J.’s and Heather’s determination to make a difference. They are not the kind of benefactors who send money and leave. They stay to make sure that positive change happens, as they do year in and year out, through Inspired Acts and involvement in multiple organizations, including the Louisville Metro Police Foundation, which they founded — a nod, no doubt, to G.J.’s father’s life of service.

The Harts’ commitment to giving back is an affirmation of JMU’s own mission to foster a brand of education where engaged, experiential learning aligns with students committed to community and to ethical, civic leadership.

Photo of JMU students working during CPK's Inspired Acts DayJMU students had the opportunity to participate in CPK's Day of Inspired Acts at California's Camp Pendleton.

The ethic of giving

“By instilling the values that G.J. and Heather live on a daily basis, we know that our students’ lives will change,” O’Fallon says. “What is neat about instilling this into a classroom [is] it will — every four years — effectively impact 900 students,” who will then take the powerful ethic of giving out into the world.

“My success,” G.J. says, “is a direct result of being given the opportunity, and taking that.” Now he and Heather are returning the favor, and JMU is the fortunate recipient. But for the Harts, re-engaging with G.J.’s alma mater also gives back to them — completing that giving circle of life. And, ever grateful for the opportunity to make a difference herself, Heather said during the naming ceremony, “Thank you for allowing us to be part of James Madison University.”

Someday, when the Hart School is mentioned alongside the Wharton School or the Kellogg School, it will stand apart, not only for its excellence of instruction but for its brand of education, reflecting G.J. and Heather Hart’s belief that an education that produces engaged graduates who give back and change society is the best education of all.

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Published: Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2018

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