A small teacher’s story

Carrie Poppy
4 min readDec 10, 2021

There are no words that make a stranger a friend. I can’t make Jim Heffernan matter to you if you didn’t know him. Which makes this kind of eulogy — the kind meant for strangers — a narcissistic exercise. Who is this for, except for me? But here I am anyway. Jim Heffernan is dead, and he mattered to me.

In 2006, I earned my Bachelor’s degree at the University of the Pacific, in philosophy. I hadn’t chosen the subject consciously. I had taken so many courses that by the time I was forced to choose, philosophy had chosen me.

The school’s memorial page quotes Heff describing his own career as, “a 42-year love affair with teaching philosophy.”

I had taken — I think this is true — every class he taught. I started with formal logic (which, illogically, I loved). Then Intro to Philosophy. Then his favorite, “The Meaning of Life.” He started the first class by announcing to a room full of sophomores, “If you are here to discover the meaning of life, you are in the wrong class.” I remember feeling disappointed. But I stayed and, despite the warning, walked away comforted.

Each of us had to pick one philosopher from the syllabus, and defend their worldview. I chose Albert Camus, because I had read and loved The Stranger. I had no idea what was in store for me. When I started reading his dense, sometimes bleak philosophy, I thought perhaps I was in over my head. But I wasn’t, not really. I came to class the next day and passionately argued for the absurdist view of life: we can’t know how, when, or why we will die, and instead of being scared shitless by this, we can be empowered. Life can be anything we want.

Heff made me read my summary aloud twice.

“Listen to this!” he said. “It’s important!”

I am told that Heff died on Thanksgiving Day, 2021. That he had a urinary tract infection, which became a worse infection, which killed him. Some tiny microbe took down a mountain of a man, six feet at least and burly. He always had a snow white beard. As far as I know, he was born looking like Santa Claus. Roughly 35,000 Americans will die this year of antibiotic-resistant infections. It will seem pointless, random, tiny, to the people they leave behind. They will find themselves telling one another: did you have any idea how common this is? No, they’ll say, they had no idea.

Heff made philosophy insanely easy. He was a notoriously easy grader, and word got around. You’d be mistaken if you counted this against him. He made the material fun, interesting, digestible. He didn’t care if we remembered the names of dead men; he cared if we remembered their theories, their arguments, and the ways we could fold these into our lives. Once, he got the entire room worked into a frenzy, arguing over the nature of the human thumb.

(Can a thumb really be a thumb if it is not attached to a hand? Me: Yes. Heff: No.)

Heff was fun and funny. He loved that I called him Heff, because it made him sound like Hugh Hefner, a comparison he could not earn. He had been married since before I was born, for one thing. I only learned from the school’s memorial that he had once considered becoming a Jesuit priest. He had never mentioned it. Not once in all that “meaning of life” talk. Not once, as I argued passionately for Albert Camus’s view, that life was short, pointless, and thus brim-full of meaning.

(“Listen to this! It’s important!”)

When graduation was around the corner, it occurred to me that someone would be giving the graduation address. I told Heff, and also Dr. Matz, my other favorite philosophy professor, that I wanted to audition to be the speaker. They enthusiastically nominated me, and to my surprise I found myself auditioning for a panel that included Heff himself. When I was done with my five-minute sample speech, he nodded to the others in the room.

“Told ya,” he said. I got the job.

At the end of that day, I imagine most of the graduates got drunk at parties with other people born in the 80s. Not me: I went to a 6 pm dinner with my parents, a few friends my age, and my two favorite professors, Heff and Dr. Matz. When Dr. Matz wrote to tell me that Heff died, he included a photo from that day, 15 years ago. He had kept it all that time.

“I know he adored you,” said Dr. Matz, who is still working on his 15-year campaign to get me to call him Lou. “As do I.”

A good teacher is a bit like a good editor: you don’t notice their work if they are doing it well. Heff isn’t active in my everyday life… not as himself, anyway. He edited the tape together, got the movie rolling. He got philosophy so active in my life that I cannot imagine doing the work I do today if it weren’t for the kind of expansive, deliberate thought he welcomed in his classroom, even when I found my colleagues’ opinions despicable or ignorant.

There was an unspoken rule in Heff’s classroom: if they are here, willing to engage, you must honor their engagement. Believe as you do in your virtues, but fight for them. In short, he kept me from fearing dissent.

(Listen to this! It’s important!)

“He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. This must not be forgotten. This must be clung to because the whole consequence of a life can depend on it.” — Albert Camus

Goodnight, Heff. You will be missed often.

Dr. Matz, Carrie, Heff. 2006.