Professor Francis Heller died last week at the age of 95. He was a member of the “greatest generation.” He was born and educated as a lawyer in Vienna, Austria, and served in the Austrian Army. In 1938 he courageously refused to support the Nazis who had taken over his country and immigrated to the United States. He enrolled in and graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law and, in 1942, joined the U.S. Army as a private.
He was sent to the Pacific where he distinguished himself in artillery, won medals for gallantry and was promoted ultimately to the rank of lieutenant. He chose to stay in the army in Occupied Japan and eventually came back to the U.S. to complete his PhD in political science at the University of Virginia. In 1948, he joined the faculty at the University of Kansas, initially on a one-year appointment. He remained at KU until 2008 when he finally fully retired and moved to Denver to live with his nephew.
During his 60 years at KU, Francis served in a variety of faculty and administrative positions, including as the university’s first provost. He also assisted President Harry Truman in writing his memoirs and was extensively involved with the Truman Presidential Library for decades. He wrote many books and countless scholarly articles, including his wonderful “Steel Helmet and Mortarboard: An Academic in Uncle Sam’s Army.” Most importantly, Francis was a superb teacher and mentor. Generations of students remember their KU experiences positively because of Francis Heller.
I first met Francis when I came to KU in 1994 to be dean of the law school. Francis was already officially “retired” as the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor, but he continued to teach and be active on the faculty. He introduced himself to me almost as soon as I had settled in. We had many things in common, including our love of history and interest in European law and culture.
Francis was exceptionally kind and gracious to me and did everything he could to help me get settled at KU, as he had for so many others. He was a treasure trove of knowledge about the university and knew virtually everyone who had been on the faculty during the past 40 years. He was also a raconteur, always ready with a story or witticism. I enjoyed my meals with Francis in particular. It was clear almost from the start how important a role Francis had played as a teacher and student mentor. Everywhere I went on alumni trips I met Francis’ former students who always wanted to know how their favorite professor was doing.
I have reached an age and stage in my career (this year is my 33rd year as a law teacher) when I find myself wondering whether I have lived a good life, a life that made some difference. I confess that I’m not sure whether I have. But when I think about my friend Francis Heller’s life, of all that he did, of all the lives he touched, of all the men and women he helped, I realize that Francis could have had no such doubts. His was a life well lived and I know that now he is probably sitting at a tavern table somewhere in heaven, having a drink or two, chatting with all of his friends up there and entertaining them with his reminiscences and warming their souls with his own. Rest in peace, Francis, you have earned it. Thanks for being my friend.