To his children and to his pastor, Robert Heatley had a life worth bragging about.

He served in the U.S. Air Force. He spent more than three decades as a police officer protecting District employees and buildings. He was a respected elder at his church, leading choirs with his tenor voice.

But the people closest to him said Heatley kept his innermost thoughts quiet.

“He wouldn’t tell his story,” said the Rev. Harold N. Brooks Jr., his pastor at the First Baptist Church on Minnesota Avenue in Southeast Washington.

It was only after Heatley died on June 18 at the age of 79 from complications of covid-19 that Brooks realized he had missed a chance to quiz his friend on his thoughts about the frayed relationship between the police and the community during this period of racial and social upheaval.

Heatley was the one who started his church’s annual tradition of providing meals to the officers at the D.C. police department’s 6th District station, though he was too ill to attend the latest delivery of box lunches.

“I wish now that I had talked to him, to get his perspective,” Brooks said.

Brooks described Heatley as the elder statesman of the church he has led for the past 15 years, the man the pastor turned to for advice, the man who, even as he slowly lost his sight to diabetes, never missed a Sunday service, Wednesday Bible study class or a weekday choir rehearsal.

“The story of our church is not adequately told without adding Robert Heatley’s name,” Brooks said.

Heatley grew up in Hollin Hills in Virginia, near Mount Vernon. After he graduated from high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Minot, N.D., where he stayed for four years. He married his wife, Diane, when he got out of the service; the two had been raised in the same Hollin Hills neighborhood.

In 1966, he joined the Protective Services Division of the D.C. Department of General Services, responsible for protecting municipal buildings and workers, his family said. He retired after 34 years, according to his son, Robert Christian Heatley, 38.

The District confirmed his employment and his years of service with the city but said more detailed records were in storage and unavailable.

During his time on the force, Heatley took classes at the University of the District of Columbia and graduated from the Wilbur Henry Waters School of Religion Inc. and Theological Seminary in Prince George’s County, Md.

Heatley’s son said his father rarely talked about being a police officer, though he loved his job. “I think it was a sense of accomplishment,” he said. “He started out as a regular officer and worked his way up through the ranks.”

Heatley had lived in the District when he started his policing career, but he and Diane moved to Prince George’s to raise their four children. He moved back to the District about four years ago.

The younger Heatley said he and his father did landscaping on the side.

“It had an impact on me as far as my work ethic,” said Robert Heatley, who manages an LA Fitness club. “Some of the better times we had were cutting grass. He was a perfectionist — he believed when you do something, do it right. Don’t go into a job halfheartedly.

“He was tough for a good reason,” his son said.

The elder Heatley struggled with several illnesses, including kidney disease, for which he underwent dialysis; diabetes, which was costing him his sight; and high blood pressure. He had survived testicular cancer.

In early June, Heatley told his family that he didn’t feel well. A few days later, he made an appointment with a doctor. But before he could go, he went to the hospital and was admitted.

From there, he went to the Deanwood Rehab and Wellness Center in Northeast Washington. His family thought he was getting better. “They never made it seem he was in dire straits,” his son said.

Heatley went into the wellness center on a Tuesday, June 16. He died two days later.

Heatley’s daughter, Ayeta Heatley, 46, said that rather than talk about work, her father talked about church, and often told stories about events and people in the congregation. “That was the source of his peace,” she said.

Brooks said Heatley led the men’s choir, the senior choir and the mass choir. He also rejuvenated the Men’s Ministry, which the pastor said had been floundering in internal bureaucracy. The ministry, whose members staff the grill at cookouts, paint, do carpentry work and help out with security at events, has been renamed in Heatley’s honor.

Brooks, 53, was in his late 30s when he became pastor of First Baptist, and he said some members took a cautious view of such a young leader. His father is the same age as Heatley, and the two quickly bonded, with Brooks turning to the trusted elder for advice about tricky internal church matters.

“His advice was always so basic,” Brooks recalled. “Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep reaching Jesus. Keep loving people.”

Brooks, like Heatley, has a background in law enforcement. Before coming to the church on Minnesota Avenue, he worked for the FBI for 15 years, first at headquarters in the District and later at Quantico, ministering to agents and staff.

Now, he wishes he and Heatley could have had a heart-to-heart talk about policing in America in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis and the nationwide demonstrations that followed.

Brooks said he worries that young people looking to join the church may distrust law enforcement and may be hesitant about the church’s close relationship to police. “I want to break down those barriers,” he said.

Of Heatley, the pastor said: “He made us a better church.”