Memorial, tribute to Dr. John Heinrichs set for Feb. 8 in Robbins Center

"Exceptionally clever or talented" is how the dictionary defines "brilliant." Few people deserve that label, but Dr. John Heinrichs was definitely one of them.
Heinrichs began teaching at Fort Hays State University in 1998, and was serving as chair of the Department of Geosciences at the university.

Heinrichs was a remarkable man with a big heart; and, as ironic as it sounds, passed away on Jan. 11, 2014, due to heart arrhythmia caused by an enlarged heart, leaving not only his wife, Maureen Duffy, to grieve, but also dozens of students whose lives he touched this semester and hundreds of others over the years.

A memorial service for Heinrichs will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Robbins Center, One Tiger Place, on the FHSU campus, across from Gross Memorial Coliseum.

Heinrichs lost his first wife, Cheryl Zeigler, less than five years ago. During what probably was one of the saddest moments of his life, he was able to find comfort in an Internet support group for young people who had lost their spouses. There, he started a friendship with Maureen Duffy. Maureen had also lost her spouse at a young age and found a friend in Heinrichs.

"We connected very fast, and everyone else around us was concerned because it was very early," said Duffy.

The two ended up developing a lot of care and respect for each other based on hours and hours of talking long distance, with Heinrichs in Hays and Duffy in Connecticut. The first time they met in person, Heinrichs flew to Connecticut and stayed for a weekend. That was when the two of them knew their relationship was going somewhere.

Only a few months after meeting Heinrichs over the Internet, Duffy made the decision to quit her job, leave her career behind, sell her house and move to Hays without ever even seeing the community.

"I felt like I wasn't an intellectual match with him, and he would say, 'You don't have to be. I have enough in my head for the both of us,'" said Duffy. "His mind never stopped, and it wasn't ready to stop," she said.

Heinrichs was a believer, a fighter and a learner. He believed in his students and never gave up on them. He had a way of finding students whose grades perhaps weren't the best, students with other life challenges or those who just needed the right mentoring. He would challenge them, find what interested them and push them to grow. At the same time, he knew how to really challenge his more academically gifted students.

One student he took under his wings was Katie Goebel. The Kansas Academy of Math and Science (KAMS) student started doing research with Dr. Heinrichs after being in one of his classes.

"Dr. Heinrichs was one of the most passionate professors I have ever had. His love for the field of geosciences was contagious," said Goebel.

Heinrichs pushed not only Katie, but all of his students, to find their own answers. He helped students strive for their very best, regardless of their ability, and to never settle for less. He believed that a grade didn't define students or their potential for success. Recently, he began taking groups of students on trips and expeditions to Colorado, Ireland and Peru.

He was a fighter because of his own history in education. Duffy said, "John got to college the long way around and got through college the long way around." It wasn't until he was 20 that he went to college. He changed his major several times. But he never quit.

The story goes that he failed calculus, so he took it again. He failed a second time and took it yet again. He finally passed and decided, "Anything that is this difficult must be worth it." Heinrichs then completed a bachelor's degree and master's degree in mathematics and later a Ph.D. in geography.

Heinrichs knew what failure felt like, and he worked hard to help students he perceived to be in the same place he once was. It was during his post-doctoral work that he realized how passionate he was about teaching.

Heinrichs was a learner. When interviewing for his position at FHSU, he was asked to teach a geographic information system (GIS) class. He confirmed that he knew GIS and was going to teach it. It so happened that Heinrichs did not know GIS. He learned everything there was to know about GIS in two weeks and was given the job on the spot.

He was an inspiring man with a lot to give. His passing is a sad moment for all of his family, friends, students, alumni, and FHSU faculty and staff. But, as Duffy and Mark Heinrichs -- John's brother -- agree, the need now is to celebrate who he was.

An endowed scholarship has been established with the Fort Hays State University Foundation. The Dr. John Heinrichs Memorial Geography Scholarship will give preference to geography students interested in, or involved with, research, and with average grades as opposed to outstanding grades. Because it is an endowed fund, the scholarships will continue forever, carrying on Dr. Heinrichs' legacy for many generations to come.

"The legacy John leaves is incredible because of the way he approached students. There are very positive things that can come out of this," said Mark Heinrichs.
Duffy added, "I can't even describe John. He was -- brilliant."

To support the Dr. John Heinrichs Memorial Geography Scholarship and to honor the great man that he was, please visit and type, "Dr. John Heinrichs" as the area of designation.

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