Jack’s Life Story

jack_readingTheodore Jack Heckelman
January 23,1923, Los Angeles Ca – April 24, 2005 Minneapolis MN

Jack Heckelman’s great love and concern for the earth led to a life of 50 years of environmental and social justice activism. He was a world traveler and enjoyed living in the fascinating cultures of Japan , Indonesia , and Egypt as well as many places in the US . Having visited and worked in over 55 countries, he rightly considered himself a global citizen. An able photographer, he enthusiastically recorded the whole adventure with over 75,000 slides. Jack loomed large and significant in many people’s lives and certainly did so as the only and older brother to our sister Holly and me.

Jack was the first born to pretty remarkable parents, our father, an innovative high school shop teacher, and our mother, Lola, a creative homemaker way ahead of her time in her cultural and spiritual striving. We grew up in La Jolla, CA, and built a mountain cabin home in nearby mountains of Julian without plumbing or electricity where we lived often and simply, reveling in the freedom and outdoors. “Heaven for a boy!” Jack would say.

A close-knit family, our capacities were nurtured. Our mother lifted our eyes to the stars and taught us a love of nature, music and art. Our Dad taught us to build and problem solve. He encouraged a cow for Jack when he was fourteen to help him learn about animals and accounting. His year-long milk business netted him $3.00! Jack was a tall, skinny (ultimately 6’4”) hyperactive kid, serious, intense, sensitive. Our parents had lost a little girl in a tragic drowning when Jack was eight. He carried that grief stoically all his life, yet somewhere around this time, he also made a vow not to be afraid of whatever life brought. Both parents imbued us with a sense of responsibility; for a job well done, for our environment, for our relationships to one another and to the world.

Jack‘s engineering skills were apparent early on in his keen interest in how things worked and interacted. This capacity for understanding interrelatedness of things would be a basis for his early grasp of the world’s intertwined eco/social systems. He was deeply moved to a deeper environmental consciousness on seeing the first photos of the earth from space and reading Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” He would later say that at first he thought people would respond to the environmental crisis if they only knew the ‘facts’ and later realized it had to touch their hearts as well to take action. Jack always deeply appreciated the outdoors and loved having his face in the wind and elements. All his life he engaged in sports to keep him there: hiking, skiing, white water canoeing, scuba diving, parasailing, and in his last twenty years, sky diving, hang gliding and hot air balloons.

Growing up, Jack had a certain shy naivete. He set high standards for himself, both for his work and conduct and expected it of others, sometimes with an attitude of annoying righteousness. He readily admitted he was a meticulous, list-making, stamp-collecting, technological nerd at this stage. Life would teach him more tolerance. In the end, his buoyant optimism, enthusiasm for life and interest in others, would help mediate his intellectually commanding presence. His was a principled integrity you could count on.

Brilliant and determined, Jack had straight A’s and received a full scholarship to Stanford University where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1944, cum laude with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He joined the Navy and later was a Technical advisor to the Far East in then new microwave communications. In Japan, he met his wife, Marjory, a teacher working with the Red Cross. Her great cosmopolitan appreciation of the world would be a major factor in his increasing world awareness. They adopted two children, Charles and Barbara, gave them a wonderful childhood home in an old historic Ox Mill in Philadelphia, and then took them abroad for their education. Jack was a dedicated family man, deeply valuing his friendships and connections to young and old alike. He had an irrepressible spirit of fun and was popular with children everywhere. He treasured his four grandchildren, Joshua, Julia, Christopher and Teddy.

Throughout his engineering/communications career, Jack always worked with cutting edge technology. At Philco Corporation, he was project manager for the first computer to create a central communications system for all the US armed forces. He headed installations for the Distant Early Warning System in Alaska. Then after 22 years with Philco, he made a conscious moral decision to no longer serve military work. Thereafter, his work was less certain but far more rewarding, and still with the latest technology from undersea cables to satellites and infra red imaging from space. He worked for UNESCO and ended his forty year career with Rockwell International.

Jack and Marjory found stimulating friends in the Unitarian church. Jack was an activist member for over 50 years in three cities, the last in Minneapolis, where he initiated Eco-spirituality work. In their long and fruitful marriage, he and Marjory worked tirelessly for peace initiatives, and together, organized 12 Midwest states with Jack as director for the United States Peace Academy in the 1980’s.

When Marge became ill and an invalid, they were undeterred and took a six month, 25 country motor home and wheelchair tour of Europe. She died at home in 1994. Shortly thereafter, he created the Alliance for Sustainable Development, a non profit group to work for preservation in the Delaware valley of PA. Jack was especially inspired by the work of Thomas Berry and Johanna Macy.

Jack’s last years and the publication of the Earth Charter, the Declaration of Interdependence for the planet, coincided in 2000. Jack immediately joined with the Earth Summit work and was a major initiator of three Twin Cities Earth Summit conferences (2002-3-4) which were some of the largest held in the US.

Jack’s marriage to Linda Bergh, a remarkable spiritually and socially attuned partner, was the greatest gift of his last five years. The marriage of two such caring individuals, so committed to the greater world good, was an inspiration to many. Jack admitted his scientific background had given him a faith in empirical knowledge, but his marriage to Linda opened new worlds of thought. He joyfully embraced the possibility of re-incarnation, divine guidance, and “angels even,” he said with a laugh. These were some of his best years and he was beloved by many and, as one admiring young person said, “the elder we had waited for.”

Jack was determined to live up to the patriarch role by dying without fear and honoring all those around him. He said death was the last great adventure and he would do it consciously. As I am involved with death and dying work, we had a wonderful sharing discussing details around his death, with my daughter making his casket, and how he wanted it all to go. Hours before his passing, he reported to me in whispered tones, that everything was “Just fine!…and the casket was wonderful!…tell everyone love, love, love!”

With his powerful will, Jack determined to live the last days as strong as possible for his beloved Linda’s sake (he was bedridden two days) and even with brain and lung cancer, was conscious to the end. The gratitude, the graciousness and love he bestowed on all in those last months and days were truly heart warming and inspiring. His eyes often filled with tears on the wonder of life. Jack Heckelman lived his life honorably, authentically, and fully, and the world truly better for all his contributions. He leaves a rich legacy with all of us who knew and loved him.

by Nancy Poer, sister