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44 Years

Posted 05/29/2009 by Vince Crespin

As Gordon Heaton retires after 44 years of teaching, he will do so with the respect of all those who have known him.

photo by Kevin Fleming

Gordon Heaton speaks at a recent surprise photo by Kevin Fleming

When the clock strikes 2:45 on May 29th, it will be the end of the year for many high school students, but in the case of Gordon Heaton it will be the end of an era; the culmination of a well respected and decorated teaching career.

Heaton, a teacher at TJ for the past 14 years, has mixed feelings about his journey coming to an end. “On one hand I am looking forward to spending a lot of time with my family; that is something that always has been and always will be dear to me. On the other hand, I love instructing kids; but I feel very comfortable with my decision,” said Heaton.  In those 14 years at TJ Heaton has taught many courses in the social studies department. “When I was a senior in high school, I had a talented, yet fun teacher who taught history. Same thing happened when I went to college; I had two professors who taught the courses with great enthusiasm, and I think that’s when I got my fervor for history. About half way through college I decided teaching was something I wanted to do. I hope I made the right decision,” commented Heaton, a smile from ear to ear.

In 1943 Heaton was born into humble surroundings in the state of Illinois to a farming family. As a kid he learned the values of hard work, getting up each day at five o’clock in the morning to help with the tending of their fields. Once graduated from high school in 1961, Heaton chose to attend Illinois College, in Jacksonville Illinois to play baseball and further his education. While in college he discovered his interest in history and began considering teaching as a possibility.  After graduating college he began teaching middle school English at Horace Mann in Denver. In the next seven years Heaton saw his family expand with the addition of his first three children, daughters Angela and Melissa, and son Rob. Over the next 30 years Heaton became an active leader in multiple teacher unions and was elected president of both the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and the Colorado Education Association. Now, in 2009 after his first semester, Heaton made it public knowledge that he will be retiring at year’s end.  True to his classic work ethic, he will end his career with 320 days of unused sick leave and the utmost respect for his career from everyone who has met him.

The list of what Heaton is hoping to do with his soon-to-be increasing spare time has already begun to fill pages rapidly in his monthly planner. “I am a huge baseball fan, so I will definitely take in some Rockies games. I am also a Golf hobbyist; I enjoy playing, but Tiger doesn’t have to worry about me coming out of retirement to challenge him or anything, I just do it for fun. One thing I used to do a lot, and I sorely miss, is running. I used to run in my spare time to keep in shape, but that is something that has eluded me in the past few years. I have no reason for not doing it, and it’s something I definitely will be interested in doing in the near future. But definitely the biggest thing is spending time with family. I have six kids, one of whom is going to Jacksonville University to play soccer, and the twins who will be freshmen in high school next year, so seeing them compete in their athletics will be a priority. I have plenty of grand kids who will now get to see Grandpa Gordon a lot more, but I will also likely travel back to my home state of Illinois to see my mother and brother as well,” said Heaton.

When a person like Heaton dedicates so much time and energy to something, it is difficult so say goodbye, as he acknowledges. “When it is all over on the 30th, I am sure there is going to be… a lot of emotion, a lot of past memories racing through my head. I probably will think of every school I have ever taught at. I expect there to be tears of plenty. It’s just – don’t get me wrong I am excited about retiring – but I will just miss the kids. This school has become a place for me where I feel completely comfortable. Part of that was the staff, but also the kids along with the parents…they have always shown me the utmost respect, which made things much more enjoyable, too,” stated Heaton. defines a teacher as, “A person who teaches or instructs as a profession.” Such bland words are not sufficient for Heaton’s students – past and present – when they think of what Heaton has done for them in the defined role. Ivory Allen, a graduate from the class of 2007, feels that Heaton’s class was much more valuable in life lessons, more so even than in history. “Heaton’s class was so amazing. He always went 110% and expected pretty much the same from us. He taught me such a great work ethic, and never let us students ease up. It has really helped me, especially in college. He has touched me and so many other people with how caring he is. I really hope he will enjoy retirement and he will always hold a special place in my heart,” said Allen.

Students who have graduated as recently as just one year ago are still singing Heaton’s praise. “Mr. Heaton is one of those teachers that is just so involved in the school. He knew when all the baseball games were and who the athletes are, and he really cared about how the teams did on the field as well as how well they did in his class. He is just a good guy overall and is a teacher that 30 years from now you talk about with your friends and tell your kids about,” said Michael Mankoff, class of 2008.

Christina Danek, another graduate from 2008, talked about Heaton’s ability to draw students’ interests into the subject he is teaching. “Before Mr. Heaton I never was really interested in history. Yet I remember on the first day walking into his class, he was so passionate about everything he was doing, and it made me more interested in the subject just because of his body language. The entire time we were in his class we spent our time learning about great Americans and what they have done to build our country; but, in reality, the great American was right in front of us,” said Danek, tears accumulating in her eyes.

Many of this year’s seniors feel lucky that they were able to be in Heaton’s class in this, his last year. Krystal Kelley, one of those seniors, expressed her gratitude for Heaton. “Mr. Heaton is the definition of an outstanding teacher. The environment which he creates, as well as just his style, is unique. He never gives us busy work, which is really nice. However, what I will never forget about Mr. Heaton is how he is just an amazing person. I remember a story where he was dealing with some racist people in college. They weren’t discriminating against him, but against a ‘colored’ classmate of his. Mr. Heaton chose not to associate himself with those people again, even though it was common back in the sixties,” said Kelley, also in tears.

Some students, as in the case of Derek Martin, Corner-Back for the Baltimore Ravens, learned more important things just by observing Heaton. “The first day of Mr. Heaton’s class I was late. He kind of just gave me a look, and from then on I knew I had to be on time. Another thing I learned from Mr. Heaton – other than history – is how to be a good father. He was always talking about his kids, and kept them high on his priority list, and it was something that I learned to do now that I am a father,” said Martin, Class of 2003.

However, Heaton’s influence was not just felt by the students who took his class; many faculty members have gained from their experiences with him, as well. Mark Smith, the man who will be taking over Heaton’s AP U.S. History class, came to TJ when Heaton was the Social Studies Department Chair, and felt very comfortable in his new role because of Heaton’s support. “Gordon has basically been the mentor to every social studies teacher in the building. We all kind of look up to him and try to be like him. Since I have been here he has been the glue, I guess you could say, that holds us as a department together,” said Smith.

Jon Poole, another TJ teacher who was mentored by Heaton, feels TJ is losing a part of itself. “I have actually told quite few people this, but what I say is, when Mr. Heaton retires, it will be like losing an institution here at the school. He, to me, has been TJ, represents what TJ is, and does it with excitement. So to see him go will be a sad loss for the school. He has also taught me a lot about organization; not necessarily how I keep my desk, but how I run my lesson plans and such. While I’ll be losing a teacher, the biggest thing I will miss, and hope to try and carry on, is his sense of humor. Every year at the teachers’ luncheon he is the emcee, and every year without fail he has the place in stitches with all his jokes,” commented Poole.

One of only a handful of people to have student taught under Heaton’s supervision, TJ Tutor Wauneta Vann, feels honored by the fact that Heaton entrusted her with his classes. “I remember, Mr. Heaton and I had been acquainted for a little while, and I was beating around the bush about asking him if I could student teach under his direction. About a quarter of the way through what I was trying to say, he stopped me and just told me ‘Wauneta, if you want to student teach with me, I would be more then happy to have you work with me.’ Once it was all done I recall telling my parents, if I could just be one half of the teacher he has been, then I would turn out to be successful, because he has accomplished so much in terms of the respect from his students and peers, that just a portion of that same amount of respect would be enough for me,” said Vann.

A testament to Heaton as both a person and a professional is his friend and colleague, TJ Teacher Matt Spampinato. “When Gordon came to TJ, we hit it off right away. We are both big baseball fans, and more than anything we are optimists about the Rockies every season. Almost every day we see each other and talk baseball, and he is just a good guy. To me though, what I will remember him by, is how great a teacher he is. What sets him apart is that the knows his subject so well, and it comes through in how he teaches. As far as I am concerned he is right there at the top of the list of teachers I have worked with,” said Spampinato.

Yes when the clock strikes 2:45 there will be the end of an era: 44 years of hard work and dedication to his students by one man will be concluded with a smile, a rush of memories, a good joke, and perhaps a tear or two.