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Hugh Heiland’s Passing Marks the End of an Era

Visitation planned for Friday, 4 to 8 p.m., with the funeral service Saturday, 11 a.m., both at Hugh G. Heiland Theatre

March 28, 2007

Hugh G. Heiland’s 70-year affiliation with Wilmington College ended with his death Tuesday (March 27)  evening, but his impact will continue to be felt for many decades to come at the institution he loved.

He joined the WC faculty in 1947 and retired from full-time teaching in 1986. During those 39 years, he was an actor in or director of nearly 300 theatrical productions produced at the College. He continued to teach on a part-time basis as an emeritus professor of theatre until the late 1990s.

Yet he was a part of the local theatre scene until his death some four days short of his 91st birthday.

In 2003, the College named the former Boyd Auditorium in honor of Heiland. The renovation and facilities enhancement of the Hugh G. Heiland Theatre was an integral part of the $7.6 million expansion of the Oscar F. Boyd Cultural Arts Center.

WC President Dan DiBiasio said Heiland remains an icon for the College community.

“We are saddened by his death but are comforted by the enormous impact he had on the College and by the many lasting memories we have of him,” he said.

DiBiasio described him as an “exemplar” of WC’s tradition of personal attention.

“Hugh was a master teacher that took such an incredible interest in his students,” he said. “As I’ve traveled throughout the country meeting with alumni, he is one of the faculty members that generations of former students ask about — they all remember him.”

Certainly, Heiland’s greatest legacy at WC lies in what has been an acclaimed program in the dramatic arts.

“He was the principal architect of our excellent theatre program — he laid the foundation upon which we continue to build today,” DiBiasio added.

Pamela Stricker, publisher of the Wilmington News Journal, said it was a privilege to have been considered by Heiland as a friend.

“Even as he faced the challenges of his health, he remained full of zeal and effervescent — maybe he was acting and letting us all think he was better than he felt,” she said.
“His mark on this community will be lasting, his friendship not forgotten.”

When the iconic figure retired in 1986, J. Wynn Alexander was hired to teach and direct theatre.

“I found myself asking, ‘How will I fill Hugh’s shoes?’” Alexander said. “I realized there was no filling Hugh’s shoes. My hope was that one day I’d be able to put my shoes next to Hugh’s.”
Alexander said Heiland’s keen interest in WC Theatre continued to the end.

“Hugh looked at our shows with a critical eye and we valued that,” he said, noting that no one wanted to disappoint him. “He was the consummate gentleman, ever-present mentor and master educator — not just for students but for those faculty and staff that came after him.

“He was always pushing you to do better, inspiring you to a higher standard,” Alexander added. “Even on his dying day when I visited him, he corrected my English!”

WC Theatre’s production of “True West” earlier this month was the only show Heiland missed since retiring — and his absence was palpable to the older students for whom Heiland was a fixture during their College theatre careers. He often sat in on rehearsals and attended every night of a show’s run.

“Hugh was in the hospital during ‘True West’ and, believe me, he was thinking about them. He wanted me to make sure all the kids knew he wanted to be there,” he said.

Alexander cherished the close relationship they developed over the years. Heiland, who, years ago developed an affinity for knitting, often asked Alexander to drive him to the store to pick up simple supplies for his hobby.

“He’d suggest we travel to Dayton, Columbus or Cincinnati to buy yarn or something that could have been purchased locally,” he recalled, noting such an out-of-town excursion would warrant them stopping for lunch.

“That gave us more time to talk and discuss things — it was our time.”

Heiland hired Lois Hock, professor of theatre, in 1977 as theatre set designer and faculty member.

“I wouldn’t be in Ohio today if not for Hugh Heiland,” she said, noting he remained “such an integral part of the program” even 20-plus years after his retirement.

“He was a disciplinarian, perfectionist and a hard worker. He got a lot out of his students and he expected a lot from his students,” Hock said. “The theatre students always knew Hugh was out there watching — it’s going to be hard realizing he won’t be out there anymore.

“Well, maybe he’ll just be sitting in a different seat.”

Another long-time colleague, Robert J. Haskins, professor of music, knew Heiland for some 43 years.

“He was a man of towering gifts and powerful personality, who left the world a wider, deeper and better place for his having lived in it in such a deliberate way,” he said in alluding to Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote, “I came to Walden to live deliberately.”

“Hugh loved that idea and emulated it in everything he did,” he added. “For those of us who knew and loved him, it was never, never about anything but excellence.”

Mark Heffernan, a member of the Class of 1982 and one of Heiland’s former students, described him as “my mentor, my teacher, my friend.”

Although Heffernan appeared in numerous shows during his years at WC, the only time Heiland cast him in the lead was for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“Believe me, by that time, I had learned first-hand that, ‘There are no small parts, only small actors!’” he said.

Heffernan recalled Heiland slipping him a note at commencement.

“He told me that, whatever I accomplish in life, he would be in the wings filled with pride and cheering me on,” he said. Heffernan paid tribute to his mentor, teacher and friend by naming his son after Heiland.

“This past St. Patrick’s Day my son, Spencer Hugh Heffernan, turned nine years old,” he said. “Although they are both now in heaven, I feel so blessed that my son was able to spend time and meet the two most important men in my life: my dad and Hugh Heiland.”

Wilmington mayor and WC alumnus David Raizk also considered Heiland as a father figure, as he grew up with Hugh and Jean Heiland’s children, Richard and Becky, along with a number of other so-called “faculty brats.”

Raizk’s father was the late Fred Raizk, a coach, administrator and/or faculty member at WC for 53 years.

“For a whole group of us, we were so close that our parents were nearly interchangeable,” he said.

But Heiland played many additional roles in Raizk’s life: teacher, mentor, director, boss (at Heiland’s men’s clothing store), close friend and confidante.

Raizk recalled Heiland often repeating from a list of platitudes, and his favorite one alluding to acting was “all you need are four boards and a passion to do theatre.”
For Heiland, the key word was passion.

“What I learned from Hugh is you have to have passion in your life,” he said. “You’ve got to have that fire in your belly about whatever you’re doing.  Everything Hugh did — whether it was theatre or his love of horses or fashions — he embraced it with passion and vigor.”

Raizk said Heiland’s passing and that of his father at age 89 in 2003 mark the end of an era.

“Hugh and dad would talk about how they outlived everyone else,” he said. “Those were the guys that worked for nothing, bridged the gap between town and gown, and built programs that thrive today.

“They laid the foundation for the modern Wilmington College.”

Heiland once shared the story of finally getting home at 5:30 a.m. after having spent the night moving platforms to the new stage in preparation for an upcoming show. He sat down and had a cup of coffee with his mother-in-law, the late Louise Linton.

“I don’t think I can go on. I don’t think I can do it,” the weary theatre director said. “She told me, ‘Sometimes it takes a lifetime to do something that you love.’ I know what she meant.”