David Heller wasn’t the kind of guy who had to impress others by symbols of success, say those who knew him well. He was much more interested in how he treated others.
Heller died Oct. 29 from an enlarged heart. A celebration of his life is planned for Dec. 14 at 10 a.m., at Reilly’s Reserve in Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, 1101 W. Sligh Ave., in Tampa.
The 48-year-old was a science teacher at a number of schools including Orange Grove Elementary School, Mary Help of Christians School, Pepin Academy and Randall Middle School. Although he taught science, his brother Mark Heller said he was really a “teacher of life.”
“I think he found the most meaning in his summer work,” said Mark Heller, head of school at Academy at the Lakes in Land O’ Lakes. “He was one of those teachers who never took a summer vacation. He always worked, and he worked at camps his entire adult life as a camp counselor.”
For many years, David Heller worked as the lead counselor at Camp Hiawatha in Odessa, and after that closed, he came to work at Summer at the Lakes, the summer day camp offered by Academy at the Lakes.
“David always taught life lessons through fun activities,” his brother said. “Usually, they were lessons about character, lessons about respect — from things as simple as taking turns, to rolling with the punches — understanding that certain things are more important than other things.”
Barbara Soule, director of Summer at the Lakes, said she was shocked when she heard the news of David’s death.
“He’s going to be greatly missed,” Soule said. He had a knack for connecting with others, especially kids. And they flocked to his camps.
“The kids were not just taking a camp, they were taking the camp because of him,” said Soule, noting he took great care to keep kids not only safe, but made sure they were having a great time, too. “To me, he was the epitome of a great camp counselor. I think he was a big kid at heart. He told jokes all of the time, and he loved to tell stories.”
David Heller taught archery, canoeing and fishing programs.
“It was very important to him that the kids catch a fish,” Soule said, and if a camper was having trouble, he would bring in a trinket and tell the camper it was a good luck charm.
Soule said she doesn’t know how or why it worked, but somehow it did.
“By golly, they’d always catch a fish. The kids were so excited,” Soule said.
Penny Benson, who works in the business office at Academy at the Lakes, said David Heller taught her daughter Brandy how to fish. The family still has a picture of Brandy with the bass she caught using a cane pole and a hot dog, Benson said.
When Benson told her daughter about the camp counselor’s death, the teenager immediately began telling her mom about the inside jokes she shared with the outdoors enthusiast.
“She loved Mr. David,” Benson said. “I felt like it hit my family, too.”
Heller said there was no indication that his brother was ill.
“He came home and laid down to take a nap and never woke up,” he said. “Though I’m deeply sad, I feel really proud that this really good man was my brother, and he is remembered so fondly by all because he was just plain good.”
Mikey Mauger, a junior at Sunlake High School, sent Mark Heller a sympathy note after David Heller’s death.
“I fortunately had the privilege of working with him at camp this summer for three weeks,” Mauger wrote. “One thing I will never forget is that he taught me that loving relationships with good people are more rewarding than any material possession or individual achievement.”
Those were exactly the kinds of lessons that mattered to his brother, Heller said.
Besides Mark, David Heller is survived by his mother and father, Jack and Judy Heller; his sister, Lynn Heller; his sister-in-law, Kathy; his nieces, Eden Heller and Kennedy Lachicotte; his nephew, Ben Lachicotte, and his girlfriend, Lori Capra, of Olympia, Wash.
Those wishing to honor David Heller’s memory can contribute to the David Heller Summer Opportunities Scholarship Fund, c/o Academy at the Lakes, 2331 Collier Parkway in Land O’ Lakes, 34639.