Lasting Impressions of John B. Heiser
“I’d like to break you of that habit.”
That’s one of my first memories of John Heiser, who was the director of the Shoals Marine Lab (SML) when I first met him in 1985. The “habit” was calling a gull a “seagull.” My recollection is he said something like “there are more than 40 species of gulls in the world and not a one of them is called a seagull.” He had a gift for saying things like that in a way that cast no judgment or shame—just a good-natured prompt for precision.
I remember him saying after the final exam for Field Marine Science 1 in 1986 that the correct answer to one question was “double-crested cormorant” and “cormorant” only counted for half credit. How could I remember that almost 35 years later? I think it’s because there was something so special about the way J.B. taught and connected with people.
No one in my family calls a gull a seagull. We give each other sidelong glances when someone uses that word. In fact, I mentioned this article to my son in a phone call last night and he chuckled and said something like “I can never hear the word seagull without thinking of J.B. Heiser.” Nowadays, it’s easy to see how that precision of language might be turned against someone as being like a drive to be “politically correct.” But I loved that precision. And it takes a special person to inspire people to be precise without seeming to impose some kind of “tyranny” on them.
I met J.B. when I worked with Bill Burtis at University Communications at the University of New Hampshire. We produced a short video segment about the “Summit to Sea” program near the close of the 1985 season at the lab. It began at the summit of Mount Washington and ended at the lab. It aired on the program New Hampshire Crossroads.
J.B. had the loudest voice of anyone I’ve ever known. And thank God for that because he had a lot of important things to say. I’ll never forget the lecture J.B. gave as we were about to depart on a whale watch. He began with an invitation to think about the survival needs of phytoplankton and ended with the logical conclusion that Jeffrey’s Ledge, in the Gulf of Maine, was a naturally supportive habitat of whales. Over all the years since then, that lecture stuck with me as a model of great teaching and I’ve talked about it many times in trying to explain to people what I think great teaching is, what great communicating is.
I think it’s easy to be seduced into thinking that the accumulation of knowledge is sufficient to pass along that knowledge. In my experience, that’s not true. And I hate to use the word “educator” because that doesn’t really encompass the skill and wisdom of someone like J.B. Heiser. He knew how to communicate and inspire.
Motivated by our experience with the “Summit to Sea” program, Bill Burtis and I set out to produce a long-form documentary project during the next season at the lab. We hoped to come up with something that would interest PBS. We had an amazing summer of shooting and documenting but, for many reasons, we were not able to pull off the national broadcast component. We did, however, produce a video that helped celebrate the 25th anniversary of the lab.
I’m now retired from production and I’m focused on legacy things, for myself and people I’ve known. As part of that work, I posted the 25th SML Anniversary video on Vimeo a couple of months ago and sent it to J.B. who then had it sent to a whole email list of Shoalers from that time. It was great to re-connect and it led to a few email conversations with J.B. that gave me new insights into that time.
We compared notes about the fact that he and I were among the oldest people on Appledore at that time—yet we were so young. It’s easy to forget those things. And as he put it—not in a remotely complaining way—“whatever the problem of the day was, it ended up on my cafeteria tray.” To me, that’s brilliant “communication.” It makes sense, and just thinking about the way he said this makes me more in awe of his ability to communicate and manage things with good humor.
The other thing I’ll always remember and be eternally grateful for is the way J.B. dealt with my son, Justin, who was 10 years old that summer and accompanied me on some of the shooting trips. Had I not been a UNH employee, I’m sure there would have been liability issues to deal with—especially if it were now. But can you imagine what it was like to watch my 10-year-old son having serious conversations with the director of SML about career plans? Without being patronized? And it felt that no matter what landed on his cafeteria tray on a particular day, J.B. somehow had space to communicate with my son—not because I was from UNH, but because he recognized an opportunity to have a positive impact on a young person trying to find their way.
I’m due to turn 70 next month. I can count on one hand the people I’ve known who have been truly inspirational and who have impacted my life. John Heiser is one of them. And without trying to brag—because of the nature of my experience with some of the most renowned educational institutions in the country—I’ve come to believe I’ve been given a pretty unique window on the nature and experience of excellent teaching. And I hope my portrait of J.B. carries some extra weight because of that.
Mark Forman's Bio
Mark Forman earned a degree in Communications at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1973. Two of his early documentary films were broadcast nationally on PBS and won awards from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For most of his career, though, he has specialized in video communications for Colleges, Universities, Independent Schools, and non-profits. His clients have included a range from Williams College, Wellesley College and Phillips Academy, Andover, to the Trey Whitfield School in Brownsville, Brooklyn. From 1983 to 1987, Mark was Senior Video Producer for University Communications at the University of New Hampshire. It was in that role that he became aware of—and involved with—the Shoals Marine Lab. He is now retired and lives on Whidbey Island in the Salish Sea (Puget Sound). He donates his services to the Whidbey Institute where he was formerly VP of the Board. His son Justin is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Rosa, CA (after first getting a bachelor’s degree in biology inspired by his experiences a SML). Mark can be reached at email@example.com.