Low-key but friendly, quiet but noticeable, professor Bill Heim walked the hallways of USF’s English department the way a ghost might move.
He was fascinated by the occult and the supernatural, and for nearly 37 years, until he recently began to feel ill, he shared that fascination with his students. Heim died Friday after complications from internal bleeding caused his liver to fail. He was 63.
“His quiet, gentle manner will be missed,” said Tom Ross, a longtime colleague and friend.
A long legacy
Heim came to USF in 1970 after receiving a Ph.D. in British literature from Indiana University.
“He arrived with a very pregnant wife, a parrot and a gold fish,” said retired but still-teaching professor Flora J. Zbar, who started here in 1965.
Heim quickly made the most of his first teaching job, becoming director of freshman English in 1971.
In 1978, he became the chair of the English department before becoming the associate dean of the College of Arts in 1989.
“He never got into a sweat,” Ross said. “He’s the only administrator I knew that could leave every day with his desk clean and his work done.”
Heim never stopped teaching. Along with Zbar, he was the first to teach what has become one of the English department’s most popular classes: Literature and the Occult.
“It’s a serious class that attempts to examine the origins of the supernatural and the occult,” Zbar said.
Just before Heim arrived at USF, Zbar finished organizing the class and had just received approval from the University to teach it. Together, they taught the course for the first time in 1970 to nearly 300 students.
It was the start of a friendship that would last nearly four decades.
“He had a lovely sense of humor,” Zbar said. “There wasn’t a single mean bone in his body. I loved him dearly. We never once had angry or nasty words between us. … I respected him greatly, and I loved him and his family.”
Zbar likes to tell the story about a pendant she bought him as a gift. She said he wore it often and called it his good-luck stone. Students often asked to touch it.
“But it was actually polished fossilized moose droppings,” Zbar said. “That was the kind of sense of humor he had.”
Both Heim and Zbar were teaching Literature and the Occult this semester. It’s been taught every semester since 1970, with six sections this semester alone.
“He just loved the energy and the mystery of the occult,” Zbar said.
Heim would teach his last class on Jan. 10.
‘A family man’
Heim was born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, a small town in the northern part of the state west of Cleveland.
He graduated from Miami University (Ohio) in 1965 and eventually went to graduate school at Indiana University, where he met his future wife, Cathy.
They had two sons, William, who is now 36, and Nathan, who is now 33.
“He was a quiet man, very bright,” Cathy said. “When he wasn’t teaching, he didn’t talk much. He was very kind and very sensitive. … He was a family man, very close.”
He was born a Catholic but converted to Judaism about 25 years ago. But Cathy said calling him spiritual would be inaccurate.
“He was very knowledgeable about the religion and taught a lot of religion courses, but I’m not sure he believed a lot of it, though,” she said. “He liked the intellectual side of it more, I think.”
Cathy said she and her husband didn’t share a love of literature, but rather a love of animals, especially dogs.
“His whole family loves dogs,” Cathy said. “They were the love of his life.”
In fact, the couple recently began adopting greyhounds that weren’t fit to raceanymore. Heim also dressed up as Santa Claus every year to raise money for othergreyhounds.
Heim leaves behind two of his own – Dooley and Misty Blue. A Heim class
Although heavily involved with department administrative duties, Zbar said Heim’s focal point was always his students and his classes.
“He always had a great story to go along with what we were talking about, and his interest and love for the topic rubbed off on me,” said senior Kyle Hirvela, who took Heim’s
Literature and the Occult class last fall.He had similar effects on students this semester, during which he only taught two days.
“He had a good sense of humor because he kept a sly grin on his face the whole time he lectured,” said senior Misty Husbands, who was in Heim’s class this semester. “I’ve heard that he was a great lecturer, and I am very upset that I will miss that.” Zbar said Heim’s grandmother was a seer – similar to a psychic – and he often brought her crystal ball to class.
His calmness and friendliness also had an impact, Zbar said.
“A student of his once told me, ‘I transferred here from another university, and I wasn’t sure if I would like it; but Dr. Heim was the kindest person.'”
When Heim walked into Zbar’s office on Jan. 11, she could tell something was wrong.”(I said to him), ‘You’re not well, you’re very ill.’ I urged him to see the doctor,” she said.
The next day, Heim collapsed inside his house. He was taken to the hospital, where he would spend the last two weeks of his life.
Zbar said she last saw him alive on Jan. 25.
“He kept on trying to get up, telling me, ‘I have to get back to class. I have to go back,'” she said.
Heim died the next afternoon.
“Everybody misses him so much,” Zbar said. “He was a classic in this department.”