ST. PETERSBURG — When Bill Heller moved to St. Petersburg in 1992 to run the small university campus along the waterfront, the city and the school were a lot different than they are today.
The downtown renaissance had not yet started to stir, and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg was a commuter school that offered mostly night classes to upperclassmen and graduate students.
Over the next 27 years, Heller served the community as a civic leader and state legislator and the university as campus CEO, professor, dean of the College of Education and director of the Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership.
“I’d see him at a formal function during the day, then another function in the evening completely unrelated. Then at night he’d be in a T-shirt at an event as a volunteer parking cars,” said history professor Ray Arsenault, a member of the faculty since 1980.
“He had no sense of pretense and there was no job too menial he wouldn’t help out with.”
Now, the university that profited from Heller’s leadership, generosity and example is recognizing him by renaming the College of Education building in his honor.
At a ceremony on May 15, the building where he taught and led will be renamed H. William Heller Hall.
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“Bill Heller has left a legacy at USF St. Petersburg that will be felt for generations to come,” said Martin Tadlock, who as regional chancellor holds the job that Heller filled for a decade. “His wisdom, his leadership and his kindness made a lasting impact on all who are fortunate enough to know him.”
Heller, 83, who has been in poor health, declined an interview request.
But in a conversation with university journalism students in 2016, he said his education began in a series of rural, one-room schools in Illinois.
Teachers “always made special efforts with my brother and me,” who were raised by their father — a poor farmer with a sixth-grade education — and grandparents, he said. “Teaching is part of me.”
Heller served as an Army paratrooper and earned his academic degrees at Southern Illinois University, Northern Illinois and Northern Colorado.
He was dean of education at the University of North Carolina Charlotte when he was hired in 1992 to become dean and executive officer of the St. Petersburg campus of USF.
The low-profile campus, which served only upperclassmen and master’s students, consisted of several buildings on 14 acres that hugged Bayboro Harbor. Almost all of the classes met at night. There were no residence halls, and many faculty and administrators griped that they were under the thumb of the main campus 35 miles away in Tampa.
But the campus — and Heller — had ambition.
USF St. Petersburg began admitting undergraduate students and making plans to expand. The Nelson Poynter Memorial Library opened in 1996. There was talk of seeking separate accreditation — a step finally achieved in 2006.
Today the university covers 52 acres. It has 4,600 students, two residence halls (and just broke ground on a third), a student union building, and a student activities center. In a recent survey, 93 percent of the first- and second-year students there said USF St. Petersburg was their first or second choice.
Heller “came in and through his leadership rallied the campus and community to stand up and say, ‘This is a place that deserves to be developed and to grow,‘ ” said Stephen Ritch, who worked with Heller for 10 years as chief student affairs officer.
Faculty and staff recall seeing Heller just about everywhere. That isn’t surprising — he served on more than 10 local advisory boards in addition to running the campus.
He helped save Sunken Gardens from being turned into condos.
He served on the board of SPCA of Tampa Bay and took initiatives to educate young children about the treatment of animals.
And when the torch relay for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta passed through St. Petersburg, Heller carried it for more than a half a mile.
In 2002, he abruptly resigned as campus CEO at the request of the administration in Tampa — a move that rankled many people on campus and in the community — and returned to teaching.
His ouster was never fully explained. Years later, he told journalism students that he and Judy Genshaft, who became president of the USF system in 2000, disagreed on the goals and direction of the St. Petersburg campus.
Since he served “at the mercy, the pleasure,” of Genshaft, he stepped down as requested, he said, and they remained friends.
In the years that followed, Heller remained a genial fixture on campus as a professor, dean of the College of Education and director of the Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership and Civic Engagement.
He also made a foray into politics.
At the encouragement of a former USF system president, Betty Castor, Heller sought and won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2006.
A Democrat, he served two, two-year terms before being swept out of office in 2010 at the height of the tea party movement.
Meanwhile, he and his wife, Jeanne, a librarian, were becoming benefactors of the university.
They are responsible for the Scholars Lounge in the Poynter Library, and they established the H. William Heller Scholarship in Special Education for students in the College of Education who either have special education needs or have a focus in special education.
Years ago, Keith Childs, the university’s longtime maintenance supervisor of air conditioning and heating, quickly learned about Heller’s legendary work habits.
When he worked evenings, Childs said, he knew to swing by Heller’s office a little later than usual.
“Half the time I would have to threaten to turn off his electrical power to get him to go home,” said Childs.
“He would always tell me he had just one more email to send — ‘One more email, Keith.’ “
Amy Diaz is a recent graduate of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. A version of this story originally appeared in The Crow’s Nest, the university’s student newspaper.