Associate Professor Tom Heidtke Retires

Tom Heidtke, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, retired in May 2010 after teaching in the College of Engineering for 29 years.

Heidtke’s research interest – Great Lakes Basin water resource and quality – stemmed from a passion for protecting the environment he held dear since he was a young boy fishing with his father. That passion translated to his teaching and reflected in the popularity he enjoyed with engineering students.

Prior to joining the faculty at Wayne State University in 1981, Heidtke was science director of the Great Lakes Basin Commission and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Michigan from 1977 to 1980. He authored or co-authored more than thirty papers on the subject of water quality management for large-lake systems and presented his work at numerous regional, national and international conferences. Most recently, Heidtke worked closely with government officials, consulting firms and other academic institutions on the Rouge River Wet Weather Demonstration Project.

“Dr. Heidtke is a prime example of what a faculty member should strive for,” says Casey Rue, undergraduate advisor for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Although his research and contributions to the environmental field are well-established, his true passion was teaching. Teaching can get overlooked at times, especially at a large research university, but Dr. Heidtke made sure he was always available to work with students until they understood the course material.”

Heidtke’s former students – like Cathy Whiting, one of Heidtke’s first students at the College – can vouch for this.

“A number of years ago a boss of mine asked me to think about who I was grateful for and I immediately stated Dr. Heidtke,” says Whiting. “I owe him a lot and have valued him as a teacher, mentor and friend for more than 25 years. His impact on Wayne State civil engineering students is huge, and I believe he leaves a legacy of taking pride in his teaching and caring about his students and their futures.”

Heidtke’s passion for teaching came from a passion for his subject. Heidtke’s father was an avid fisherman and would take Heidtke fishing with him. “Like my father, I had a passion for fishing and an intense desire to better understand as much as I could about natural water systems, especially the Great Lakes,” he says.

After Heidtke received a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Michigan in 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began funding a unique water resources engineering traineeship program at a few universities around the country, including U-M, Heidtke explains, “This opportunity seemed nothing less than a miracle in my eyes. I applied for and was awarded one of these EPA traineeships, and suddenly I was able to focus my graduate studies and my subsequent professional career in an area that meant more to me than any other.”

In his career, Heidtke earned many teaching honors, including ten Engineering Student Faculty Board Outstanding Faculty Awards, two of the College's Excellence in Teaching Awards and a President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

However, Heidtke says, “As proud as I am of these teaching honors, nothing is more gratifying or personally rewarding than the occasional visits and emails I’ve received from former students over the years. To have students return long after graduation to tell me they value what they learned in my classes, that they appreciated my efforts as a teacher, and that I contributed in a meaningful way to their professional success . . . that is what has meant more to me than anything else.”

One particular example of student appreciation occurred during his last year at the College. The group of civil and environmental engineering students who competed in the American Society of Civil Engineering’s 2010 Concrete Canoe Competition named their canoe “Heidtke’s Last Stand” in their professor’s honor.

“I was stunned and honored beyond words when I was told the students wanted to associate my name with their written design report, their oral presentation of the project before a panel of judges, and to have the words ‘Heidtke’s Last Stand’ painted on the side of their finished canoe when they raced it against those from other schools,” says Heidtke. “What more could I ask or hope for in terms of being remembered by my students?”

Like his career, Heidtke’s retirement will also be related to water. He says he plans on spending more time fishing on Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie. He also plans to “sleep a little longer most mornings, take my time getting up and dressed, and simply remind myself to savor the time and freedom that comes with retirement. I hope to become involved in some form of volunteer work, perhaps at a local hospital. The possibilities seem endless.”

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