In Memoriam

Heanon Wilkins
Professor Emeritus of Spanish and Portuguese
1927 - 2015

Heanon Wilkins was a Professor of Spanish in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Miami University from 1968 until his retirement in 1992. He was born March 31, 1927 in Neville Island, Pennsylvania, to parents Rosa Lowery and Heanon Wilkins. He died on December 16, 2015, while enjoying the annual Christmas party at the Knolls of Oxford.

Heanon spent most of his formative years in Washington, D. C. After completing his B.A. at Howard University, he taught Spanish and French for several years in high school and junior college in Florida. Heanon received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he met his wife of 45 years, Professor of Spanish Emerita Constance Wilkins. Heanon taught at Miami University’s Dayton campus for two years prior to arriving at the Oxford Campus as Miami’s first tenure-track African-American professor.

Heanon was known as a person of outstanding intellect, warmth, kindness and gentleness. He was respected by students, colleagues, and administrators alike. His endeavors on behalf of Miami University included service on a multitude of committees across the entire campus. Likewise, he made an important research contribution to his field of Medieval Spanish literature including numerous conference presentations, invited lectures at various universities in the US and abroad, published articles and extensive edited texts of previously inaccessible medieval Spanish manuscripts.

Professor Wilkins set up and directed the Equal Opportunity Office during a time of racial unrest on many US campuses and immediately prior to the May 4, 1970 Kent State University shootings. This program was responsible for not only encouraging minority students to attend Miami but also to provide them with the educational, emotional and moral support to be successful in college. Rodney Coates, Director of Black World Studies for many years, emphasizes Heanon’s incalculable influence on the program: “While much is known about Heanon Wilkins’ scholarship, little is known with relevance to his visionary leadership. Heanon helped clarify and direct the Black World Studies Program at Miami during much of its formative period. As such, he helped articulate the mission and the purpose of Black World Studies. In so doing he laid down the foundation from which the program has developed. During this period, Dr. Wilkins, concerned with a very broad interpretive lens of the African Diaspora, infused the program with an identity that encompassed these identities globally. As a mentor he facilitated the growth and development of a whole generation of scholars that have gone on to make their mark on Miami and the academy.” According to Charles Ganelin, Professor of Spanish in the Department, Heanon was instrumental in hiring other African-American faculty and encouraging minority students to attend a Miami that had little diversity at the time. Perhaps the culmination of the accolades given to him occurred in 1992 when he was selected to receive the Benjamin Harrison Medallion, Miami University’s premier recognition presented to a faculty or staff member who has made outstanding national contributions to education. As Paul G. Pearson, the President at the time, stated, Heanon “is a scholar of international importance, a gifted and caring teacher, and a tireless worker in serving students, his discipline and Miami.” Another outstanding recognition came with the establishment of the Heanon Wilkins Faculty Fellowship, awarded to fellows who have completed the doctorate or equivalent degree and are invited to Miami to teach for one or two semesters with a reduced course load, allowing continuing focus on research, something Heanon carried out throughout his professional life. The last Wilkins fellow named during Heanon’s lifetime, Prof. Phill Alexander, offers this moving reflection: “I can’t help but think about that famous quote from the statue over by the Hub. ‘To think that in such a place , I led such a life.’ Dr. Wilkins lived such a life — one of trailblazing, student service, expert teaching and mentoring — in such a place where he was the first and where still it is far too rare to see a person of color as a professor. I hope that my efforts here continue to make Dr. Wilkins proud as he looks back on Miami from the next world, and I hope that Miami University will always remember what Heanon Wilkins did and how his legacy reminds us to be better, to do better, to reach out to everyone and pull the community together.”

Many are the friends, students and colleagues from various periods of his life who remember Heanon fondly. Melanie Ziegler, now on the faculty of Global and Intercultural Studies, recalls enrolling in Spanish 201 as a first-year student in Heanon’s class, loving every minute of it and feeling fortunate to have been his student. Professor Shelly Jarrett Bromberg, current Chair of Spanish and Portuguese, arrived after Heanon’s retirement, but cherishes a fond memory that is characteristic of Heanon’s many-faceted personality: “Heanon knew exactly where the wine came from and its quality and we sat down together to enjoy a glass. I was fortunate to visit with Heanon a few more times. Heanon was one of those rare academics who struck a perfect balance between formidable scholarship and humility that enabled him to leave an amazing and timeless legacy throughout out the Miami and greater community.” Two students who graduated in 1978 wrote in a recent condolence note to Connie: “Perhaps your ears were burning when we reminisced fondly about having classes with “the Wilkinses”! And, naturally, we have encouraged as many students as possible to attend Miami!” Long-time Argentine friend Marta Inouye, recalls many beautiful moments in the company of Heanon and Connie in Argentina as well as in Spain. Jesús Ithurralde of Montevideo, Uruguay, considers himself an “adopted son” of Heanon and Connie, linked as they are in a close friendship of over thirty-five years. Larry Young, Miami alumnus and former director of the then-named Office of Minority Student Affairs, said of Heanon: “He was truly a person of many gifts, which he so generously shared with each of us. He was a man who saw teaching as service, as an obligation to help others to know, to understand and to grow. He was a man of much grace, of good will, much humanity, much gentle humor, and deep intellect. He was a man, an affectionate and loving husband, partner and companion, a brother, uncle, grandfather, mentor to so many, gracious colleague, and, to untold numbers, steadfast friend.” Professor of Education Peter Magolda considered Heanon one of his favorite people, commenting: “He had a way of making me happy when we interacted. I admired his intellect, optimism, and humility. He will be missed by many, especially the Oxford community.”

Some of Professor Joseph T. Snow’s remembrances of Heanon follow: “I have always been proud of my friendship with Heanon, which goes back a long way, to be precise, to 1965 when we were both enrolled as doctoral students in the Dept. of Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We coincided, as future medievalists, in many courses with the dean of medievalists, Lloyd Kasten. Heanon married Connie Clark, another of our fellow students in the medieval program, and they made a wonderful and long-lasting contribution to the University and its community. I can recall meeting up with them at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, plus many an MLA in the USA. Then there were other pleasurable meetings in Buenos Aires and Madrid. Heanon and I were linked, too, by our mutual love of professional tennis, though he made it to Wimbledon and Roland Garros and I did not. Did I envy him? You bet! Heanon was a family man and loved his sisters, and his stepson and his family. He loved music and was often seen at the Cincinnati Symphony. He adored his students for more than 35 years, first as a Teaching Assistant and then as a professor and faculty adviser. As a scholar of medieval Spanish literature, his devotion to Gonzalo de Berceo was inspiring to all of us. Heanon’s smile and laughter were disarming and they remain so in my many memories of him.”

Another close friend and colleague is Professor Emeritus Ramón Layera, who is equally effusive in his fond memories of Heanon: “More than three decades later I still treasure the memories I have of my arrival on the Miami campus, and of the years I spent with both Heanon and Connie Wilkins in our secluded office corner in Irvin Hall. During those early years I was fortunate to have adjoining offices next to Heanon and Connie starting in 1985. We consulted with each other regularly about academic issues and kept up with our respective research projects. I depended on their experience as senior colleagues, but above all I was enriched by their welcoming and generous spirit. Their hospitality and our shared friendship was not limited only to our office corner; we traded home meals regularly and got to know each other’s families quite well. I liked Heanon the moment I met him; he had a special, gentle way about him that was both engaging and endearing, and it did not take me very long to think of him as a friend. I gradually discovered that aside from a keen intellect and curiosity, he was also endowed with a playful sense of humor. Heanon was a warm, joyful, friendly presence in my life from day one; he was also a kind, dependable and wise colleague, someone whose counsel I often sought about professional and personal matters.”

“Heanon was a serious scholar and a dedicated departmental citizen. He earned and deserved my admiration for the seriousness and dedicated commitment with which he collaborated, year after year with Connie on the editing and publication of La Corónica, the prestigious, refereed journal of Medieval Studies. Heanon was not only respected for his work as journal editor, he was also a well-known specialist on the works of Gonzalo de Berceo, the first named Spanish poet and on the Cantigas de Santa María, the medieval Galician-Portuguese collection of poems and song notations. But Heanon was not only an accomplished scholar and successful classroom teacher, he was also a respected and admired proponent and defender of the human and civil rights of Afro-Americans both on campus and in the City of Oxford. Through the years he served honorably and with courage in various capacities while helping Miami University’s institutional efforts at creating a more tolerant and hospitable environment for faculty and students of color. The Department of Spanish and Portuguese and Miami University had in Heanon a distinguished colleague and treasured friend. He will be missed.”

Professor Emerita Judy Bissett, a Latin Americanist who with her husband Paul Bissett were close friends with Heanon and Connie, fondly recalls their many years together: “I remember Heanon as a friend, a dedicated traveler and a person who loved good food and a good party. As a friend, he was always supportive and willing to share his views and opinions with those who knew him best. He was a great teacher and was well-liked by all his students for whom he worked hard to prepare and present the material he taught in every class. Paul and I will miss Heanon even though we have not seen him in several years. We still expect Connie and Heanon to step off the plane every March for a visit to our house in Albuquerque after they attended the El Paso drama conference.”

Professor Emeritus Reed Anderson, a former chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has spoken warmly about Heanon. He writes: “When I came to Miami University in 1981 to chair the Department of Spanish and Portuguese there was a small cadre of University of Wisconsinites already on the faculty and among them, Heanon and Connie Wilkins were friends I had known prior to accepting this new job. While we felt warmly welcomed by all the faculty and students, what I remember most vividly about Heanon was the immediate interest he took in our teenaged children. This move to Ohio from northern California was intimidating to say the least! It was as though Heanon sensed their unease and made an almost fatherly connection with them that all of us remember to this day.

“With time I realized that this same concern and connection at the most human level was something that Heanon maintained with the students in our department as well. They adored the time and attention he devoted to them at the weekly Spanish Cub gatherings and to preparing them to sing Villancicos at Christmastime, going from door to door of the faculty homes and thus forging a connection to their teachers and enjoying their hospitality. Where students presented problems, or when there were special student accomplishments to be praised, Heanon would talk about them with colleagues, always with a sense of concern, pride, and even — more often than not — with humor. It was clear that he delighted in knowing, accepting and nurturing these young people for the complicated, vulnerable and growing human beings they were. His presence in their lives was an unforgettable part of their experience in the Department as well as at Miami University in general.

“Beyond our community at Miami, Heanon was known throughout the profession as a serious scholar and someone who relished the opportunity to travel for his research and for important connections with other academics. Throughout his career he steadfastly maintained friendships that dated back to his graduate school years, and he and Connie made every effort to see these friends whenever they could during their professional travels. Everyone I knew who also knew Heanon never failed to acknowledge his deep human qualities — his warmth, his loyalty, his humor and his fairness. And on this last account, Heanon could be at his strongest and most convincing. He knew precisely what fairness and equanimity meant in the context of the wider world as well as in the academic profession and in the treatment of faculty and students alike. He could be as firm and effective as anyone in defending and promoting these principles, but his collegial and caring demeanor all the while would win acceptance of his points of view where others might have failed to prevail.

“How can you capture a life in a few paragraphs? How can you say even a small portion of what needs to be said? I hope that my small contribution here will provide some insight, along with that of many others, to complete a portrait of an exceptional friend and colleague, a loving husband to Connie, a caring father to his step-son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, a friend and mentor to his students and an unforgettable presence in the lives of so many others.

“¡Quė amigo de sus amigos!

Y aunque la vida perdió
Nos dejó harto consuelo
Su memoria.”

Jorge Manrique

Descanza en paz, Heanon.”

These paragraphs of remembrance can hardly reveal the sum and substance of a truly fine person who made friends easily and developed a loyal following among one and all. There is a void in the world with his passing.

Respectfully submitted by Shelly Jarrett Bromberg (Chair, Spanish and Portuguese), Charles Victor Ganelin (Department of Spanish and Portuguese), Rodney Coates (Global Intracultural Studies), Connie Wilkins (Professor Emerita, Spanish and Portuguese).