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Donald Heck­en­lively passed away on Jan. 27 | External Affairs

Donald Heck­en­lively always looked for ways to combine his career as a biol­ogist with his interests in the arts and com­puters. This served him well, for instance, when he had to illus­trate the mating habits of frogs for his class, much to the amusement of his stu­dents.

Col­leagues and stu­dents remember Heck­en­lively, a former biology pro­fessor, for his humility and humor. He died after a brief illness on Jan. 27 at the age of 78 in Kala­mazoo, Michigan. During almost 30 years of teaching at Hillsdale College, Heck­en­lively directed the biology department and served as vice pres­ident for aca­demic affairs, similar to the provost role before that position had been created. And while he loved teaching his stu­dents, Heckenlively’s family said he also had a deep-seated passion for the arts and pho­tog­raphy.

‘He did whatever he needed to support his family’

One of Heckenlively’s sons, Patrick, said he admired his father’s humility. Their family first moved to Hillsdale in the early 1970s, and after a year of filling in at the college, Heck­en­lively found a variety of ways to provide for his family. No job was too menial for his father, Patrick Heck­en­lively said.

“When he was still com­pleting his degree, he would go work in the fac­tories in town just to put food on the table,” Patrick Heck­en­lively said. “He also worked as a sub­stitute teacher for a while in the local schools. He did whatever he needed to support his family.”

During this time, Patrick Heck­en­lively was in ele­mentary school. But as he got older, he began to under­stand how much his father valued work and how amazing it was for his father to get jobs outside of higher edu­cation to take care of the family. He remembers his father as being “very quietly capable,” and someone who didn’t have an over­in­flated opinion of himself.

“For someone who’s highly edu­cated to work in the fac­tories, that shows a level of humility that I don’t think too many people have.”

He said one of his father’s neighbors came to him at the vis­i­tation and remem­bered Heckenlively’s humility. 

“My dad’s neighbor didn’t have a lot of book learning, but my dad told him, ‘You know a lot of things I don’t, and I know a lot of things you don’t,’” Patrick Heck­en­lively said. “Even though he was highly edu­cated, he didn’t really look down on people.”

Sim­i­larly, Pro­fessor of Biology Frank Steiner remembers Heck­en­lively being a calm and com­posed col­league. He said it was easy to get along with him.

“He never seemed to get bent out of shape. He had a level head,” Steiner said. “And he was a team player. He valued everybody’s expertise and was willing to coop­erate with other faculty members and stu­dents on research projects.”

Bringing Hillsdale into the age of com­puters

Heck­en­lively, who pri­marily taught bio­sta­tistics, was known for being handy with com­puters. Heck­en­lively, Wes Kelly of ITS, and Cal Jerret, a math pro­fessor, worked together to create the college’s first com­puter network. Patrick Heck­en­lively said his father played a critical role in moving the college into a com­puter-centric world at a time when most work was still done on type­writers.

“They made our first com­puter network by daisy-chaining all the little Mac­intosh com­puters,” Steiner said. “They did that in a couple of weekends.There were wires above on the ceilings in Stro­sacker.”

Patrick Heck­en­lively said that before this, his father would even use one of the school’s early main­frames to work on his dis­ser­tation. Beyond that, Heck­en­lively also used com­puters to his advantage as a teacher.

He created a program, according to Patrick Heck­en­lively, which was a game to teach stu­dents about the thalamus and what it does.

“At the time, the graphics were pretty prim­itive, but he made the most of them,” Patrick Heck­en­lively said.

Heck­en­lively also wrote, from scratch, an enzyme program called Simzyme, which he had pub­lished, Steiner said. The program focused on the enzyme respon­sible for the browning of fruit.

“It was an enzyme sim­u­lation program that we ran for many years. I loved it; it was a great program. We had all our intro major classes do it as one of their labs,” Steiner said. “Afterward, I had it redone so we could con­tinue to use it on more modern com­puters.”

While the program is no longer updated for current com­puter software, Steiner said he appre­ciates that the biology department was able to use Heckenlively’s program for so long.

Excel­lence, care inter­acting with stu­dents, col­leagues

Steiner and Pro­fessor of History Kenneth Calvert agreed that Heckenlively’s per­son­ality made him an excellent teacher and a delightful col­league.

“He was well-versed in his field,” Steiner said. “He got stu­dents to look at things from a real ana­lytical per­spective. He got stu­dents to approach things from a sci­en­tific per­spective rather than from a touchy-feely way.”

Calvert met Heck­en­lively in 1996 when he was applying to teach at Hillsdale. He recalls getting a phone call from Heck­en­lively on March 1 at 5:30 p.m., when he offered Calvert the job. Every year since then, including last year, Calvert has either spoken in person with or emailed Heck­en­lively thanking him for the pro­fes­sorship. A couple of years ago, Heck­en­lively said to Calvert, jok­ingly, “Well, let’s just hope it works out well.” Calvert still laughs at the instance, pointing out that it was more than 20 years after he was hired.

“He was not only very wel­coming and encour­aging through the whole hiring process, but once I arrived, he reached out to me and was immensely encour­aging,” Calvert said. “Whenever I stopped to talk with him, he would always ask me how classes were going, how stu­dents were doing, and how I was doing per­sonally. He had a sense of the whole nature of being a pro­fessor, what it took.”

Pro­fessor of Physics Jim Peters said the college owes a lot to Heck­en­lively, espe­cially in his efforts to make Hillsdale a place that ran with per­sonal com­puters. Peters said that Heck­en­lively even got faculty back­packs which allowed them to take heavy com­puters home.

Peters also said his and Heckenlively’s fam­ilies were good friends.

“One day, Don brought a milkweed plant over to our backyard with a cater­pillar on it so our children could watch it turn into a Monarch but­terfly,” he said in an email. 

Mark Kalthoff, pro­fessor and chair of history, was both a student and col­league of Heck­en­lively. He met Heck­en­lively during a campus visit in high school. It was the per­sonal inter­action with pro­fessors like Heck­en­lively that played a large role in bringing Kalthoff to campus as a student.

When he was put into an advisee group as a freshman, Kalthoff’s adviser was Heck­en­lively. The group of freshmen had dinner at the Heck­en­lively home. A few years later, during his senior year, Kalthoff ended up renting the family’s garage, which had been con­verted to a studio apartment.

“Their house was the bookends,” Kalthoff said. “It was the first house I went to off-campus when I arrived as a freshman, and I ended up living in that house as a senior. I knew their family and knew their sons pretty well.”

Kalthoff remembers Heck­en­lively being matter-of-fact when they met to talk, an approach which worked for Kalthoff in his own aca­d­emics.

Biology on the home­front

Heckenlively’s work as a biol­ogist was not con­fined to the classroom. Patrick Heck­en­lively said living in a biologist’s household had some inter­esting dynamics. He said one time the family was sitting down to dinner when someone went to get the bread.

“Someone said, ‘Ew, the bread’s moldy,’ to which my dad responded, ‘Ooh, bread mold! I’ve been trying to grow some in the lab all week.’ He took it to the office the next day,” Patrick Heck­en­lively said.

Another time, Heck­en­lively was working with a pro­fessor at Michigan Tech­no­logical Uni­versity, and the two were studying the tem­per­ature prop­erties inside chicken heads. They created a system where they would, according to Patrick Heck­en­lively, “snake through the blood vessels of the chicken head while it was alive” and collect data. But before that, they needed a map of the blood vessels. So Heck­en­lively injected a deceased chicken’s head with a plastic that would map out the arteries and veins.

“We had this dead chicken head boiling on a back burner for a weekend,” Patrick Heck­en­lively said. “It was in the family kitchen.”

An artist ‘in his heart of hearts’

Throughout his life, Heck­en­lively was an avid pho­tog­rapher, musician, and sup­porter of the arts. After his retirement in 2003, he became much more involved in com­munity arts, even having a hand in starting Gallery 49, a local arts venue.

When he went to college, Heck­en­lively orig­i­nally wanted to be an artist, according to his son. But his grand­father offered to pay for his edu­cation if he majored in some­thing else. So Heck­en­lively chose biology and even­tually got his Ph.D. in the field.

“But in his heart of hearts, I really think he was an artist,” Patrick Heck­en­lively said.

As a pho­tog­rapher, Heck­en­lively mainly took photos of archi­tecture and flowers. Patrick Heck­en­lively said he liked to mess with filters and almost approach the art as a painter might.

When it came to music, he was an accom­plished musician, and he served as the organist at Holy Trinity Parish. But not in the way one would expect.

Patrick Heck­en­lively pointed out that his father — while he played instru­ments like clarinet and could read music — was not a key­board player. He ended up con­trolling the organ’s notes through the MIDI interface, a com­puter system used with musical instru­ments. He would just hit a button, and the organ played the notes.

“He joked he was the only organist in town who would make the same mis­takes each time,” Patrick Heck­en­lively said.

Kalthoff said that Heckenlively’s diverse interests proved he was a good fit to teach at a liberal arts school. But whatever field of study or hobby Heck­en­lively was inter­ested in, Calvert said he always showed a real care for people with whom he inter­acted.

“I remember being inter­viewed by him. What was clear to me is that he was looking for pro­fessors who were quality, that knew their stuff. And that they fit the mission of the school,” Calvert said. “The way he spoke to me about that was genuine and caring. He was playing the role of a shepherd for a young pro­fessor.”