From left, above: Whatcom Community College President Emeritus Dr. Harold Heiner; Gov. Booth Gardner and Dr. Heiner; Dr. Heiner discussing Syre Student Center designs; Dr. Heiner.
Dr. Harold G. Heiner
President Emeritus, Whatcom Community College
Oct. 27, 1938 - Oct. 17, 2015
Dr. Harold G. Heiner was instrumental in the successful transition of Whatcom Community College from a start-up educational institution to a highly regarded community and technical college. During his 29 years at Whatcom – first as Dean of Instruction and then President for 24 years – Dr. Heiner blended masterfully his vision for accessible higher education with his skill for building connections and navigating political channels to create a permanent location for what began as a “college without walls.” His legacy is Whatcom’s beautiful campus in north Bellingham and the successful lives of thousands of Whatcom graduates.
When Dr. Heiner joined the College, enrollment stood at approximately 2,433 students and classes were taught in temporary locations throughout the county, including vacant grocery stores and abandoned office spaces. It was his vision to create a campus that could serve the community for generations into the future, and he did just that. When he retired, Whatcom had approximately 7,000 students, and the permanent campus in north Bellingham was established. Today, the College serves 11,000 students with transfer degree and professional technical programs as well as community and continuing education classes. The campus’ 12 buildings feature well-appointed classrooms and labs, and the grounds include landscaped walking paths, art installations and athletic venues for student athletes. Whatcom has been rated among the nation’s top 150 community colleges.
As Dr. Heiner recalled in a 2007 letter in which he announced his retirement to the campus community: “In 1978 I was drawn to Bellingham, to a ‘college without walls.’ I dis¬covered it was also without any campus at all. It was what they had, though, that beckoned me to the call. There was a rich student-centered philosophy and a ‘can-do’ attitude known as ‘the Whatcom Way.’ The ‘Whatcom Way’ is not any particular way of getting something done. It is, rather, an attitude that we will accomplish our goals, one way or another. From the beginning, Whatcom Community College seemed to be a near perfect fit for me. I was full of enthusi¬asm for teaching and learning and open to experimentation and new ideas. I joined trustees, faculty and students, all eager and creative, and who believed in support¬ing student hopes and dreams. They accepted and molded me when necessary, and together we have built a dream for all to see.”
Dr. Heiner’s years at Whatcom followed a distinguished 40-year community college career as a faculty member and administrator. He served as a faculty member and director of student development at Skagit Valley College from 1966-1973. In 1973, he moved to the State Board for Community College Education (now State Board of Community and Technical Colleges) in Olympia where he served as director of student services. In 1978, Dr. Heiner became Dean for Instruction at Whatcom. He became President in June 1984, following the death of then-president William J. Laidlaw. He served as president for 24 years, steering the College’s impressive growth in campus size and programs. When he retired from Whatcom in June 2007 at the age of 68, Dr. Heiner was named President Emeritus.
A member of the United States Marine Corps (1956-1959), Dr. Heiner earned his associates degree at Skagit Valley College in 1963. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in education from Western Washington University (1965), his master’s in psychology from Washington State University (1966) and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Washington (1970). Dr. Heiner also completed post-doctoral studies at Western Washington University. Prior to his career in higher education, Dr. Heiner was a journeyman machinist for the Skagit Corporation.
In a February 2013 interview with Whatcom’s student newspaper, the Horizon, Dr. Heiner shared that as a young man in Blanchard, he developed his attitude toward education partly after he enlisted in the United States Marines. “I noticed in the Marines that everyone had authority over me,” he said. “I analyzed why that might be and it came back loud and clear: ‘You don’t have a college degree, my dear.’ … I decided that my life would not be limited, but it would be opened by a college education.” Dr. Heiner believed the relatively lower-cost programs offered through two-year institutions were critical because they allow all students – regardless of income – to attend college.
He shared in the Horizon article that his most cherished memories from the College were “seeing teachers and students … prove that they can overcome the toughest of odds.” Dr. Heiner named the development of Whatcom’s International Program as one of his most important legacies for its potential to build cross-cultural understanding. Launching in the fall of 1988 with only nine students from five countries, today, 300 international students from more than 30 countries attend classes at Whatcom. During his tenure, the WCC Foundation was created to strengthen educational opportunities by providing student scholarships, supporting faculty and staff development, and assisting with key College initiatives.
Dr. Heiner received numerous honors and contributed generously to his community during his lifetime. He was inducted into the WCC Hall of Distinction in 2005 and the Northwest Athletic Association of Community College’s Hall of Fame in 2007. Washington state legislators honored him in 2007 with House Resolution 4664, recognizing Dr. Heiner as a hero in his community, applauding his outstanding achievements at Whatcom Community College, and praising his lasting contributions to the quality of life in Whatcom County and Washington state. Dr. Heiner was present in 1995 when a student was shot and killed in a domestic dispute on campus. Without hesitation, he and other WCC staff members bravely tackled and restrained the assailant until authorities arrived. Additional honors include a lifetime membership awarded by the Bellingham Rotary Club in 2010 for his dedicated community service. He is also credited with helping to introduce some of the first roundabouts in Whatcom County, which can be found near the Kellogg and Cordata intersection. Whatcom’s Heiner Center is named in his honor.
“Whatcom has been my life and first love,” Dr. Heiner told the Horizon. “Every day I would move Whatcom forward to serve students. If it wasn’t good for students, I wouldn’t do it. If it was, I would move mountains and rocks to see it happen.”
Dr. Harold Heiner had six children, 45 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. At the request of the Heiner family, memorials may be made to the Heiner Scholarship Fund, c/o the WCC Foundation, Whatcom Community College, 237 W. Kellogg Rd., Bellingham, WA 98226.
Whatcom shares remembrances and condolences
"Dr. Harold Heiner will be remembered for his belief in the power of education to change lives and for his visionary work to make college accessible for all students, regardless of their circumstances. During his nearly 30-year career at the College, he worked tirelessly with the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and community members to create a permanent campus for what started as a ‘college without walls’ and, today, is recognized among the finest community colleges in the nation. Dr. Heiner’s can-do spirit was infectious. His passionate advocacy on behalf of students inspired colleagues and community members, who carry on his students-first philosophy today. His considerable contributions will continue to benefit generations of students. On behalf of the entire campus community, I extend our sincere condolences to his family.”
- Dr. Kathi Hiyane-Brown, President, Whatcom Community College
“Whatcom Community College remains committed to the vision that Dr. Harold Heiner inspired during his years as president. We can best honor his memory by striving to carry forward his dream of a campus that puts student success first and that collaborates closely with our community to create an institution of which we can all be proud. We acknowledge and give thanks for Dr. Heiner’s passion and foresight. And, on behalf of the Board of Trustees, I extend our sympathy to his family.”
- Steve Adelstein, Chair, WCC Board of Trustees
"From looking at the beautiful campus my father helped create at Whatcom Community College, and everything else he accomplished while there, it's hard to believe that it was done by a man whose first childhood home in Washington state at the age of 2 was a one-room log house built by his father. It's probably this first log home that led him to build two other log houses during his adult life, one in Little Rock, Wash., the other in Everson, Wash. The Everson home is where he lived while at Whatcom and after his retirement.
“The family moved from Colorado in 1939. They loaded all of their belongings into a Model A Ford, and along with some other relatives, moved west in search of a better life. They landed in Edison. He would always say that the only famous person to reside in Edison was Edward R. Murrow. I think it's safe to say that Edison can now lay claim to another famous person, Harold Heiner. At age 15 he moved out of the family home and took a job milking cows for one of the area farmers. This allowed him money to purchase an Indian motorcycle. While out riding with one of his friends one day, a policeman set chase for speeding. Harold and his friend outran the police; however, feeling guilty about it, he later turned himself in. The outcome of the court hearing was that Harold was declared a juvenile delinquent by the courts.
“After graduation at 17, he wanted to join the service. Being too young, he brought the issue up with his father. His father asked him how old he needed to be? Harold stated, "Just one year older." As the story goes, with the swipe of some rubbing alcohol and a rag, his birth year was changed and in the service he went. In the Marine Corps, Harold soon noticed that the ones who had the better jobs were the ones who had an education. It was at that point he decided to go to college so his options wouldn't be limited. This was to be the beginning of a lifelong love with education.
“Harold's favorite song to share with friends and family was "You are my Sunshine.” In fact, many of his grandchildren still believe he wrote it. On behalf of his family, we are so proud of the contributions he has made to Whatcom County and the thousands of lives he has been able to touch and enrich while Dean of Instruction and President of Whatcom Community College. He will always hold a special place in our hearts and will always be Our Sunshine!"
- Scott Heiner, on behalf of the Heiner Family
My mother has worked in the ESL department since we moved to Bellingham in 2000. She always had only the nicest things to say about Harold. My sister and I were fortunate enough to meet him when we were very little. Rest in peace, Dr. Heiner.
His roaming the halls with his smiles not knowing who I was...made me feel important.
Thank you Dr. Heiner for everything that you have done to help others achieve their dreams! May you rest happily knowing what a difference you have made in the lives of so many.
I remember visiting many times my cousin, Harold Heiner, in that small log house when we were all very young. I have been so proud of him as I have watched him grow and see all the wonderful things he has done. I love family and Dr. Heiner, I am so proud that you are part of my family and I look forward to seeing you again in the next life and to see what you are accomplishing there. Love to his family from a first cousin, Lenore.
-Lenore Rasmussen Robbins
H. You believed in me, made me a leader, and taught me your secret - "think students first". It was a great run, sir... one we are all very proud of.
Amazing president and friend! His main goal was to always help the student. His unique way to interact with us was amazing. His dedication was always showing all over the campus. I’m always going to remember him because it touched my life forever in so many ways, as a student and as a family member. My father got the pleasure to spend time with him as well.
'If tears could build a stairwell and memories were a lane, I would walk right up to Heaven and bring you home again. No farewell words were spoken no time to say good-bye. You were gone before I knew it, and only God knows why. My heart still aches in sadness, and secret tears still flow. What it means to lose you, no one will ever know.'
I won't ever forget you. Rest in peace Dr. Heiner (my friend).
Dr. Heiner was an amazing leader with a true and sincere commitment to always putting students first. Whenever a decision needed to be made, he always asked the same question, "well, what's best for students?" This philosophy has guided WCC and those who serve here for many years--and, I have no doubt that it will carry forward for many years to come because of the culture he helped shape.
Dr. Heiner believed in ME as a student, encouraging me and inspiring me to go back to school to earn my MBA--knowing it's what I would need to be ready for the next opportunity in my career. And, he was right. I am so very grateful. I am proud to have had the opportunity to work with such a great man.
-Nate Langstraat, Vice President for Administrative Services, Whatcom Community College