My dad died Sunday.
It was so hard to let him go. He had three wishes: to die at home, to have no service, and to leave his body to the medical school. Those are tough promises to keep, but we did it.
A good friend told me a few months back that it would probably fall to me to write the obituary and I knew she was right. I penciled out his biography. Once in a while, I’d ask him a question or I’d listen carefully as he told someone a story. Bits and pieces got folded into his biography until all that was needed was the top and bottom that make it into an obituary.
Except that, as I’ve learned through the years as a reporter, a person’s family might know them, but they may not know the C.V. After several rounds of family edits, this was the final cut:
Donald Eugene Heinkel, longtime Windsor resident and devoted family man, died September 10. He was 88.
He was born April 20, 1935, in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, to Gerald Heinkel and Leocadia (nee Schesta) Heinkel, the second of five children. Although the family eventually settled in Rockford, Illinois, a large polio outbreak that began in 1937 in Chicago and northern Illinois sent him, along with his mother and siblings, to live near family in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, a tiny town on the western shores of Lake Michigan.
After he graduated high school and completed one year of college, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was stationed in Japan following the Korean War. When it was time to return stateside, he asked his commanding officer to sail home, since he had been on shore duty in Japan. He boarded the USS Yorktown and finished his tour of duty on the USS Midway where he worked filing weather reports.
He took advantage of the G.I. Bill to enroll at Marquette University. He met his wife, Carol, while driving for a laundry service where she also worked. They married November 7, 1959. He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees in biology at Marquette.
He then worked for two years as research technician. After realizing he’d be working from grant to grant, he went back to Marquette to enroll in dental school. In his final year of studies, he saw a notecard on a bulletin board. A small farming town in central Wisconsin needed a dentist. In 1970, the family moved to New London and he opened his practice on the second floor of a medical building. The practice grew and he moved to a spacious office building on the banks of the Embarrass River.
The central Wisconsin winters eventually proved too harsh. In 1978, he brought his family to Windsor, Colorado, where he bought an historic building on Fifth Street and did much of the rehabilitation work himself before opening a new practice to serve the fast-growing community.
A skillful woodworker, his first project—a lamp base that he couldn’t quite make square in 7th grade shop class—belied the artist within. As an adult, he took woodworking classes. In the first class, he built a twin bed that nearly every family member has slept in at some point, until he finally kept the bed for himself. His skill and creativity blossomed as he built furniture and decorative items from both classic patterns and his own designs, including tiny end tables assembled from scraps of Texas mesquite.
The move to Colorado also gave him a chance to join with other actors to form the Windsor Community Playhouse. He enjoyed playing a wide range of characters, from the terrifying and murderous Waldo Lydecker in Laura to the hilarious, hapless Father Virgil in Nunsense.
He sold the dental practice to Patrick Weakland and went to Saudi Arabia to practice for several years so that he and Carol could travel and then retire.
He taught himself to play guitar, and was an enthusiastic and accomplished golfer. He hit three holes-in-one during his amateur career, including sinking the same hole twice at Highland Hills and another during tournament play at Pelican Lakes. He also traveled to Scotland to play a round at St. Andrews, the home of golf, and to Augusta, Georgia, to volunteer at the Masters Tournament.
He was preceded in death by his parents; his brothers, Richard Heinkel and Dennis Heinkel; one nephew and one son-in-law. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Carol; four daughters, Peggy, Chris, Karen and Teresa; three sons-in-law; five grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; four step-grandchildren and their six children; his sisters, Mary Ann Scott, of Arizona, and Helena Wagner, of Hawaii; and sixteen nieces and nephews, more or less.
The family is deeply grateful for the help of Dr. Douglas Kemme, Dr. Daniel Pollyea at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, the Colorado State Anatomical Board, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the caring staff of Pathways of Northern Colorado and Homewatch Caregivers.
Adamson Life Celebration Home is in charge of arrangements. No service is planned. Donations may be made to the above organizations or to the charity of your choice. Or, in lieu of donations, make a toast to Don at the 19th hole.
Some bits and pieces from his biography ended up on the cutting room floor.
For example, the family didn’t want to emphasize his military service, because he saw that as a duty. No fanfare required.
In working other obituaries for the newspaper, I’ve sensed that when an individual leaves home–whether they enlisted, or entered college, or started their first full-time job–you often get a glimpse into their origin story.
At one point, my cousin got Dad talking about basic training in the Navy. Dad’s assigned spot for morning calisthenics landed him right in front of the drill sargeant. After the first day, he knew no good would come of it. Meanwhile, he was also offered a menial assignment. There were several bulletin boards around the base where posters and announcements needed to be swapped out and updated daily. Dad accepted the job. He said he knew it was a 20-minute chore, but he always made sure it lasted an hour or two, to spare him the morning calisthenics.
He told us more than once that he and a buddy went to the top of Mount Fuji. Finally, I got him to share details. They rode the train up. It was spectacular. When it was time to go home, they got on the wrong train down. The east side train had wayfinding signs in Japanese and English, to help the tourists. The west side did not. He and his buddy knew they were cutting it close. But they figured their way out and got back to base before they were awol.
I love those stories. They say so much about my dad. He was in the first year of a seminary college when he dropped out to enlist. What an incredible pivot, especially when you consider that the Korean War had just ended.
His life is full of these leap-and-the-net-will-appear moments. Growing up, I didn’t see him that way. But that’s the limit of your kid vision. Your dad is just always just there, punching the clock, supporting the family. Thank goodness we had the gift of time so all that richness could come through.
Being there, being present has incredible value, too. After Mark died, Dad was a touchstone for my kids. Sam adored his grandpa, and their weekly zoom chats. Family has helped him, and so have friends these past few days. His Born 2 Be friends at the riding stables have surrounded him. I’m grateful for our little village here. If you are so inclined, please consider Born 2 Be, and in my dad’s memory, during North Texas Giving Day.
Dilapidated railroad bridges can be repurposed for fishing, biking, running and hiking just fine, once you get up those flights of stairs.
Weather in the Florida Keys seems harder to predict, even for the meteorologists. But the breezes dry what falls on you and overcast skies are kinder than sunny ones. Running straight as the blue crabs run from you sideways messes with your mind. People leave their bicycles in mysterious places in the mangroves, or perhaps that has something to do with the aforementioned crabs. Tiny trails through the mangroves to the bay are so inviting. Until you are sure that’s what the alligators want you to think.
In my faith, if you have a need, we’ve got a saint for that. I’ve got one of those little “guardian angels” hanging from the rear view of the pick-up, but I don’t take much stock in it. Some would say I need a St. Christopher medal, but I got Sam and myself a membership in AAA instead.
If you’ve lost someone close to you, like we have in the Wolfe house, then you probably carry that person with you like a patron saint from time to time.
The year after Mark died, in my own year of magical thinking, I often talked to birds that came close, in case it was him.
Friends would tell me that they would get visits from their loved one. These were the greatest stories, by the way, friends who could see the loved one in a bedroom mirror after dark, or who would see the loved one next to the bed, and carry on a conversation. I was a little jealous. The birds never talked back to me. Once I thought Mark was trying to visit — coming down the hall after all the kids had fallen asleep — but I got so terribly frightened that he never tried again.
Hence the birds.
Michael called when I got home from Iowa. He was filled with emotion. He had felt Mark’s presence all through the end of high school and through the first years of college. But now, as he is about to start his senior year, Mark has left his side, Michael says.
“He was trying to get me to be the man he wanted me to be,” Michael said.
Michael realized the message: he was there, the rest was up to him, it was his life to lead now.
Mark’s been gone for nearly five years and he still makes me weak in the knees.