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Friday, August 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Robert Heilman, 98, had passion for writing, football

By Doug Merlino
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Robert Heilman was a writer and a scholar.
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Robert B. Heilman, whose leadership helped bring the University of Washington's English Department to national prominence, died Aug. 5 in California of natural causes. He was 98.

Mr. Heilman chaired the UW's English Department from 1948 to 1971, and he transformed the program by hiring high-profile faculty and visiting scholars.

"By bringing in strings of wonderful people, he moved the University of Washington's English program into the national spotlight," said current department chair Richard Dunn.

Mr. Heilman brought in many distinguished teachers and invited writers such as Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, Irving Howe and Robert Penn Warren to lecture. The most famous faculty member during his tenure, poet Theodore Roethke, started at the UW at the same time as Mr. Heilman.

Mr. Heilman was a prolific writer and scholar. He edited 12 books and wrote 10, including studies of Shakespeare's plays and a textbook on drama. His last book, "The Professor and the Profession," a collection of essays, was published in 1999.

A collection of his correspondence with philosopher and political scientist Eric Voegelin was published this year.

"He thought the week was wasted if he hadn't written an article," said friend and colleague William Matchett, a professor emeritus in the UW's English Department.

Mr. Heilman practiced "new criticism," a school of literary criticism ascendant in the mid-20th century that focused on the technique and form used in works of literature. He received numerous awards for his work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In addition to his scholarship, Mr. Heilman was a strong administrator.

When Roethke — a lauded poet and teacher who suffered from bipolar disorder including bursts of strange behavior — drew criticism, Mr. Heilman stood by him.

In a letter, Mr. Heilman wrote: "[Roethke] is, I think, one of our most valuable faculty members. ... Although it is risky to guess about the future, I think he will be a permanent figure in American literature, and whatever place he has, this university will always share in it."

Beatrice Roethke Lushington, Roethke's widow, said Mr. Heilman's support was crucial.

"He was particularly important to Theodore Roethke and me because he believed in [Roethke]," she said.

Matchett said Mr. Heilman never forgot that he came from humble roots. He was born in 1906 in Philadelphia and grew up on a family farm in eastern Pennsylvania. He attended Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1935.

From 1935-48, Mr. Heilman taught at Louisiana State University, where he was a contemporary and friend of Robert Penn Warren.

Mr. Heilman's son, Champlin "Pete" Heilman, said Mr. Heilman had a deep love of the Northwest from the time he arrived in Seattle.

"He was not an outdoorsy person, but he thought he'd come to God's country," said Pete Heilman. "He never came to take the beauty for granted."

His son also said Mr. Heilman was a "wacko Washington Husky football fan."

"In his later years, he couldn't watch. If they were winning, he'd be afraid they were going to lose. If they were losing, he'd be afraid they would continue to lose," Pete Heilman said. "It caused him so much anxiety that he could watch the games on tape only after reading the outcome in the Sunday sports pages."

Mr. Heilman's passion for the proper use of the English language showed in his correspondence with The Seattle Times, to which he would occasionally send letters to correct grammar errors he'd found in articles.

One pet peeve was the use of the word "graffiti" in the singular — it should be "graffito."

Although Mr. Heilman had what his son called "a lifelong terror of water, even of riding on a ferry," he asked that his ashes be scattered at sea.

Pete Heilman said his father reasoned: "At last, I'll be comfortable in the water."

Besides Pete Heilman, of Palo Alto, Calif., Mr. Heilman is survived by son Robert W. King of Washington, D.C.; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife, Ruth Heilman, died in 1985.

His son said donations in Mr. Heilman's memory should be made to the University of Washington's library.

Mr. Heilman requested that there be no memorial services.

Doug Merlino: 206-464-2243 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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