Bill Heller, a longtime University of South Florida St. Petersburg leader and former lawmaker, has died, according to an email sent Saturday morning to the school’s employees.
“It is with great sadness that I inform you that Dr. Bill Heller passed last night,” wrote regional chancellor Martin Tadlock. “Bill was the heart and soul of USF St. Petersburg for many years. He was an unflinching advocate for the campus and the city and leaves a tremendous set of accomplishments that will never again be matched.”
Heller was 85. He died “at home, surrounded by loved ones,” according to information provided by his family to USF.
He came to Florida from the University of North Carolina Charlotte in 1992 to serve as dean and campus CEO at USF St. Petersburg. The university credits him with helping transform the St. Petersburg campus from a small, commuter school serving only upperclassmen and graduate students to the place it is today, with more than 4,000 students.
He stepped down from his leadership role in 2002 and became a professor, dean of the College of Education and director of the Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership. Later, he told journalism students that the move was the result of philosophical disagreements with then-USF president Judy Genshaft over the direction of the St. Petersburg campus, but that the two remained friends.
He announced his retirement in late 2018, and the school named its education building after him in May 2019. Heller was in poor health then, according to the story about the renaming.
Heller also represented the St. Petersburg area in the Florida House of Representatives as a Democrat from 2006 to 2010.
State Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, the incoming House speaker, reacted to the news on Twitter, writing: “Bill Heller was a kind man who cared deeply for @USFSP and the Pinellas community. His advice was always candid and thoughtful."
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, also tweeted, saying Heller was a “tireless leader” and “a role model to all.”
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who served in the Legislature with Heller, said he was “a class act” who “always wanted to work with others in doing good.”
Heller also served as president of the board of Bayfront Medical Center, chair of the Pinellas Cultural Foundation, a board member emeritus of the Mahaffey Theater Foundation, chair of the board of directors of the Great Explorations children’s museum, president of the SPCA of Tampa Bay, among other positions, according to biographies on USF’s and the Florida House’s websites.
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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who also served in the Legislature with Heller, directed that flags on city property be flown at half-staff for the next week in his honor.
“Today is a sad day for St. Petersburg and the countless lives touched by the Honorable Dr. Bill Heller,” Kriseman said in a statement. “In his capacity as an educator, elected official, leader on numerous boards and committees, philanthropist, and friend to all, he made our community — every single person he met — better, kinder, and smarter ... While we will sorely miss Bill, we will take comfort in knowing a better life was never lived."
Heller told USF journalism students in 2016 that his education began in rural, one-room schools in Illinois, the state where he was born.
He was raised by his grandparents and his father, a poor farmer with a sixth-grade education. But teachers “always made special efforts with my brother and me,” he said, and he went on to teach special education in Illinois. “Teaching is part of me.”
Heller served as an Army paratrooper and earned degrees at Southern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University and the University of Northern Colorado. He also lived in Alabama for a time and was superintendent of a psychiatric hospital in Tuscaloosa.
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, an honor that USF professor Ray Arsenault said was fitting for someone who cared so deeply about the city.
“You’d see him in a meeting in the morning at the university and there would be charity event that night and he’d be parking cars,” said Arsenault, who teaches American history on the St. Pete campus and is one of the university’s longest-tenured faculty members. “No task was too small for him. Everything large and small — he was always there.”
Arsenault recalled how even on top of Heller’s other commitments, when St. Petersburg’s Sunken Gardens was at risk of being razed for a condo development, Heller stepped up to help save it.
“It would’ve been gone without Bill, because his leadership and his opinion counted for so much,” he said. “Every time I go there, I think of him.”
Heller is survived by his wife, Jeanne; three children; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
His body will be interred at Bay Pines National Cemetery, said a USF spokeswoman. There won’t be a formal ceremony because of the coronavirus pandemic but his family hopes to hold a celebration of life at a future date, she said.
In lieu of gifts, his family is requesting donations to the Great Explorations Children’s Museum in St. Petersburg or the or SPCA of Tampa Bay.