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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Heinz: In Memoriam

Heinz died this morning. I say “died” because he actually passed away from us all gradually over the past ten years since the passing of his wife Kathleen, and today is the day his body finally stopped keeping him from going on. I want to chronicle my memories of Heinz.

When I first met him, the first thing he did was to teach me to say his name correctly, if I wasn’t going to use “Chris,” which is what he changed his name to, when he gave up on Americans ever getting his first name right. “Heinz,” he told me, does not have a long, drawn-out z sound, does not have a long e sound, and should always be clipped, the way Germans like their speech. Long i vowel as in “high,” short z like a “ts” at the end. His name is Heinz Christian Christiansen, so he began calling himself Chris.

But let me go back. Heinz was born in northern Germany near the Danish border while World War Two was raging. When he was quite young, his parents divorced and his mother remarried a man who was rather brutal with the children. Heinz remembered not having enough to eat when he was young. He had an older sister and at least two brothers (I cannot remember how many brothers, but one was older and one was younger than Heinz). When the end of the war came, all the national leaders gathered in Heinz’s town to sign the treaties.

Heinz was a member of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He liked going to church. When he was a teenager, his older brother went to the Bountiful, Utah area to live, sponsored by a couple who lived there. It was not a success, and Heinz’s brother was returned to Germany in some degree of disgrace. Heinz had wanted to go to America too, but the couple who sponsored his brother were soured on the idea because of the trouble they felt they’d had.

Then a missionary from the U.S. arrived in Heinz’s town, Keith Wahlquist, who seemed to take an interest in Heinz. By this time he had left school and was in an apprenticeship program, and he had spare time every evening that he mostly spent with the missionaries whenever they’d let him. Keith let him come with them a lot. Heinz asked Keith if Keith’s family might be willing to sponsor him.

Keith’s family living at home consisted of his widowed mother, a younger brother, and a maiden aunt. He also had an older sister and brother, both of whom were not living at home, although his sister was there a lot. He wrote home and asked. His aunt was very interested in sponsoring Heinz, so the necessary paperwork was completed, and Heinz just had to finish his apprenticeship before he could go. Keith was due to be released from his mission in April, and his aunt and he arranged together that he would do a little traveling around the continent while he waited for Heinz to finish the first week or so of June. The day came, and Keith and the eighteen-year-old Heinz sailed off on their ship to New York.

Mabel met them in New York. Heinz knew by then only about five or ten words of English, but he enjoyed Mabel taking them around her favorite big city and treating them to a Broadway show. Then she flew home while the two young men took the train across the country.

He became a member of the Wahlquist family. Keith’s aunt was like a mother to him and he a son to her.

As soon as they arrived, Keith’s mother, Ruth, welcomed Heinz into the family and, being an educator herself, and the widow of an educator, and the daughter of educators, she enrolled him at the local community college. Now Heinz had not been to school for years, and he didn’t speak English yet, but he spent the summer watching television and learning as fast as anybody could.

He did well. He served a two-year LDS mission to Austria. He graduated from college, then he went on to get a graduate degree, then another graduate degree, and he became a college professor. He married Kathleen and they had four beautiful children, three boys and a girl. He became a U.S. citizen along the way. He left the teaching profession to join an educational travel consortium, where he led tours to Europe and to Israel and the rest of the Middle East. He returned home to visit his mother and siblings fairly often. His children did well.

He served long and faithfully in the Church of Jesus Christ. He was a bishop and then a stake president. He worked for a number of years in the Orlando Florida Temple.

We visited them a few years before Kathleen died, and we had the greatest time. He loved showing us around and joking with our son who was still young then, and talking about the topics of the day or about religion or philosophy or history, our favorite subjects. He gave us a little olive-wood box from Israel out of his display cabinet where he had treasures from many places.

They visited fairly often, and we always enjoyed their company. After Kathleen died, Heinz called Keith a lot to talk about things. He went over and over all the implications of making a decision to remarry, and we felt his choice, a childhood friend who had moved to the States with her family when she was an adolescent, was a good one. It proved to be better than merely “good”—Elke was and is the best, a saint. She took care of him when early Alzheimer’s took him away much too soon.

We have been missing him for several years now. On his last visit to us, he sat by Keith and the only sentence he had formed in months he spoke to Keith: “I like you,” he said.

We like you too, Heinz.

We surely miss you.