Former colleagues recall impact first president Paul Heath had on JWCC

Bill Simpson, president of John Wood Community College at the time, left, presents Paul Heath with a plaque expressing gratitude for his leadership and devotion to the college at a ceremony in 2004. (H-W File Photo)
Posted: Jan. 1, 2013 4:01 pm Updated: Jan. 15, 2013 4:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Paul Heath is being remembered this week as an educational visionary and innovator who helped turn John Wood Community College into one of the region's outstanding centers of higher education.

Heath died Dec. 27 at the Legacy Assisted Living Center in Xenia, Ohio. He was 78.

Heath served as JWCC's first president from July 1975 until August 1987. He led the college through its infancy and into its fast-growing adolescence.

"He made the college," said Jim Reed of Hull, the original chairman of the JWCC Board of Trustees that was elected in the fall of 1974, charged with the mission of creating the region's first community college.

"It was just like starting a new business," Reed recalled. "We hired the right guy."

After the JWCC board was organized, the board initially hired a temporary CEO until the board could complete its national search for JWCC's first president. Reed said the board was fortunate to find Heath among the applicants.

"He had the right temperament to work with the board and the community," Reed said. "I couldn't say anything better about him. He was just a good guy to work with."

Reed said Heath faced a major task in launching a community college from scratch in an environment that wasn't especially welcoming at the time.

"John Wood came into Quincy not with a red carpet," Reed recalled, noting how this particular section of West-Central Illinois was one of the last remaining designated community college districts in the state that didn't yet have a community college in place.

"It wasn't wanted there at all," Reed said. "There were a lot of people in the community who thought we didn't need John Wood. They thought it was going to hurt Quincy College and was going to hurt Culver-Stockton (in Canton, Mo.). They thought it was just a terrible thing. Paul had to put up with a lot that some of us board members didn't have to."

Reed said Heath persevered and turned the fledgling community college into something that has benefited thousands of local students over the years.

"Even those big detractors at the time see the good of it now," Reed said. "It was a great experience for me working with Paul. He was just a wonderful guy."

Others who worked with Heath in JWCC's early days also expressed words of praise for the former administrator, who left Quincy in 1987 to become the fifth president of Elgin Community College.

"He was crucial" to the early development of JWCC, said Larry Fischer, a current member of the Board of Trustees who spent 32 years working at JWCC. Fischer retired in 2008 as vice president for instruction.

"John Wood started in a tumultuous time. It was not an easy birth, let's put it that way," Fischer said. "Paul understood how to take community resources and utilize them in a way to begin a college -- especially with some of the concepts that he presented, like the Open Learning Center and the ‘common market' system and all that. He was very knowledgeable about how to take limited resources and maximize the use of them."

Fischer said one of Heath's greatest strengths was the way he encouraged creativity and personal initiative in others.

"He encouraged people to think outside the box and to be creative," Fischer said. "That's how we developed the University of Illinois/John Wood center at the Orr Center. Paul was very receptive to those discussions and encouraged it."

Fischer said the Orr Research Center went on to become the only place in the U.S. where a land grant university worked with a small community college to share in providing resources for agriculture research, extension and education.

"It was a natural marriage," said Fischer, who served as JWCC's director of agricultural programs before he became vice president for instruction.

Fred Bradshaw of Griggsville was chairman of the committee that helped launch the Orr Center through a cooperative venture with JWCC and the Illinois Resource and Conservation Development agency.

"I worked with Paul a great deal on the Orr research farm," Bradshaw said. "He was a man of vision. He saw the potential of things. He had the ability to look into the future and to plan."

Bradshaw's wife, Carole, also worked closely with Heath during her own 22-year career with JWCC, which included serving as director of JWCC's Pittsfield center.

"He was a real leader and a visionary," she said. "What I liked about him as a staff member was he was so approachable. He just worked with everybody in the college."

Similar sentiments were expressed by Evelyn Holtschlag, the college's longtime director of marketing and public relations, who retired about four years ago.

"He was one of the most creative and innovative leaders in education I ever worked with," she said. "He was the driving force that helped John Wood become what it is today."

Holtschlag told how JWCC started out in a small rented space inside the former Illinois State Bank building on the northwest corner of Sixth and Hampshire. After about a year, the college moved to rented quarters in what is now Quincy University's North Campus. JWCC was headquartered there until the college bought the former Lincoln Elementary School at 48th and Maine from the Quincy School District in 1983. That location served as JWCC's home until the college moved to its current location at 48th and Harrison.

Holtschlag said it was "extremely fitting" for JWCC to honor Heath in 2004 when it named its newest building after him -- the Paul Heath Community Education and Fine Arts Center.

"It took people by surprise because you don't tend to name buildings after people who are still alive, but it was extremely deserving," she said. "He left his mark on the college in so many different ways."

Gerry Carter, who retired in 2004 as vice president for community services following a 34-year career at JWCC, said Heath was a motivating force at JWCC.

"It wouldn't be what it is today if it hadn't been for him," she said.

"Some people called him a visionary because he was always coming up with something. He was never out of ideas."

Carter said Heath was an especially effective leader because he was always offering encouragement to others.

"He thought people were important, and he though they should be encouraged to do all they could do," she said.

Jon Astroth, who worked at JWCC from 1980 to 1986, said Heath was an inspiration to him and others.

"He left a lasting impression on me," Astroth said. "He was one of the strongest mentors I had as a community college administrator."

Astroth worked as Heath's assistant for one year before he became chief academic officer.

"He was highly creative and very progressive in his educational thinking," Astroth said of Heath. "I've never been around anybody who was any better than Paul was at working through issues with individuals one-on-one. He liked to give me and others some room to operate. He didn't sit and look over your shoulder all the time. If you gained his trust and confidence, he let you run a little bit."

Astroth went on to become a community college president himself at several institutions in Illinois. He retired in August from Lincoln College, which has campuses in Normal and Lincoln.

"I can think of four or five other administrators who worked with me (at JWCC), all of whom became community college presidents," Astroth said.

"We had a reunion with Paul one time in Washington, D.C., and we called him the ‘president maker.' He spun off presidents like mad. It was amazing."