Celebration of life
The family of Francis Heller is planning a celebration of his life for noon on Jan. 26 at the Dole Institute of Politics at Kansas University. A memorial mass and inurnment are also being planned, but times are not yet certain.
A campus leader, a soldier, an expert in several fields, an associate of Harry Truman, a dedicated educator — it's tough to fit everything Francis Heller was into one sentence.
But those who worked with and learned from the former Kansas University professor and administrator say most everything he did was driven by a passion for education and a love for KU.
Heller died Jan. 9 in Denver after a brief illness. He was 95.
"He was one of the giants of KU in his time," said Mike Davis, a member of the KU School of Law faculty for 42 years.
Davis came to the law school shortly before Heller did. But whereas Davis was new to KU, Heller had just stepped down as vice chancellor for academic affairs — the No. 2 position in the university hierarchy, similar to the provost job today. That was one of several administrative titles he held at the university, in addition to a distinguished professorship with a dual appointment in law and political science.
But despite his status on campus, Davis said, Heller was as collegial with his fellow faculty members as could be. The sign on his office door at Green Hall, the Journal-World reported in 1972, read simply "Mr. Heller."
But his story had a lot more flourish.
He was born in Vienna in 1917, and he escaped Austria in 1938, despite his spot in the Austrian Army. He served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific during World War II. Then, after joining the KU faculty in 1948, he went on a two-year leave to serve again in Korea.
A couple years after his return to KU, he was drafted by the man who'd been his Commander in Chief, President Truman, to assist in writing his memoirs. He later served on the board of directors for the Harry S Truman Library Institute.
"He was extremely proud of the fact that he was associated with Truman, and that he had a role in the writing of the man's career," said Calder Pickett, a retired distinguished professor of journalism at KU and a longtime friend of Heller's.
By 1957, he had joined the KU administration as associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In that job, he focused on working with the university's high-ability students. The Journal-World reported then that he was believed to be the first administrator at a state university with that primary responsibility.
He mentored a number of students who went on to earn Rhodes Scholarships in the late '50s and early '60s, and one of them was Fred Morrison, now a professor of law at the University of Minnesota.
Morrison said Heller loved to push his students to achieve more. When Morrison came to KU as a freshman from a western Kansas town, he hadn't taken any math higher than algebra. He assumed he'd have to take trigonometry next.
But Heller, his adviser, told him instead to enroll in calculus. He could learn trigonometry over the weekend, Heller said. Calculus started on Monday.
"He was a formative person in my development, because he kept me interested in academics and moved me along the right path," Morrison said.
Morrison went on to major in math, along with political science, before becoming a Rhodes Scholar.
Gary Pomeroy, an attorney for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, was a student of Heller's later in his career, when he was a law professor.
He took four of Heller's courses. Though he had high standards and a public stature, he was approachable and wasn't impressed with himself, Pomeroy said.
"It was kind of like taking a class from your grandpa," he said.
Larry Heller, Francis' nephew, said Heller's devotion to his students was plain for his family to see.
"He was a true scholar in that regard," Larry Heller said.
Also important to him was his Catholic faith, Larry said, and that played a role in his service at Benedictine University in Atchison, where he served on its board of directors and also taught.
Heller served as KU's No. 2 official during the late 1960s, a time when it was rocked by protests. Multiple times the Journal-World retold a tale of his from that time: In the spring of 1969, a young man walked into his office, said "Here's what I think of you," and proceeded to urinate on his desk.
"We didn't have a long conversation," Heller said in 1972.
Jeff Weinberg, now a teaching fellow for the KU Honors Program, was a student of Heller's about 50 years ago, and the two became friends later as Weinberg worked in several positions in the chancellor's office. He said Heller was a top-notch dinner-party guest, able to speak at length about subjects ranging from the rise of the Nazi party to the formation of the European Union to, of course, President Truman. But he knew more about KU than perhaps anything else.
"He knew KU like few people," Weinberg said. "He was absolutely devoted to the university, selfless in that devotion."
He retired in 1988, alongside his friend Pickett, though he continued to teach until 2003. His wife, Donna, died in 1990. In 2008, he moved to Denver to be closer to his family, finally clearing out his office in Green Hall.
His mark on KU remains, though. He played a role in the formation of the Honors Program, and he later founded the University Scholars, a selective mentoring program that chooses 20 high-achieving sophomores each year. (His co-founder was Deanell Reece Tacha, now a retired federal judge.)
"Even when Francis moved to Denver, in many senses he was still here," Weinberg said.