Joan Heidelberg outside looking up

In Memoriam: Joan Heidelberg

In Memoriam


We have received the sad news that Joan Heidelberg, the first Executive Vice President of NAAEE has died. Joan served as Executive Vice President of NAAEE from 1979 to 1991. She was instrumental in laying the foundation for the dynamic, resource rich association we value so much today. Follow the link for Joan's obituary.

"Joan brought joy to everyone. She was warm and hospitable, while also being effective. I first met Joan in 1979 when I became a member of NAEE (precursor to NAAEE). My first memories are of someone who was welcoming and dedicated. I got to know her better when I became an NAAEE board member. Such good memories. My heartfelt condolences to her family and friends. NAAEE has lost a true champion." - Bora Simmons, on Facebook

Joan was born and raised in Alabama but moved to Ohio in the early 1960s with her husband Bob after they completed advanced degrees at Rice University. Some years after moving to Ohio, they helped develop and then co-manage Brukner Nature Center near Troy, OH. Joan’s path was soon to cross with NAAEE’s.

The original NAAEE was established as the National Association of Environmental Education (NAEE) in 1971. A group of Community College Educators based in Florida were the impetus behind the new association. These volunteers soon realized that they needed professional help in administering it. They developed a request for proposals for administrative support. Brukner bid on the project and was awarded a contract for administering NAEE in 1979. Thus, Joan became the first Executive Vice President of NAEE.  Originally, she was to work half time for NAEE and half time for Brukner, but NAEE’s workload increased and she was soon full time for NAEE while continuing her ever increasing duties with Bruckner.

"She was one of the first people I met when I first started in EE. She was a very special person." - Brenda Weiser, on Facebook

As the first Executive Vice President, Joan quickly found it necessary to build the infrastructure for the programs that over the years were to become the core of NAEE. 

She developed a computerized membership records system. (The first records were handed to her on notecards in a shoebox.)

The financial records and management system were equally informal. Soon, bookkeeping was handled by a qualified individual and check writing and recording computerized.

The biggest program effort then as now was the annual conference. Joan worked with a cadre of volunteers who provided the on-the-ground and programmatic support for the conference each year while managing its finances and other administrative tasks. Joan initiated and managed a dozen conferences during her tenure.  

"Joan is an example of a person who loved our profession, loved NAAEE and was selfless in her contributions. She has left a legacy for environmental education and we should be ever mindful that her work in the field beckons us to carry on in the spirit of her many contributions." - Joseph August Baust, on Facebook

Joan also managed the NAEE publication program that in cooperation with ERIC and John Disinger at Ohio State provided environmental educators with a series of research and programmatic publications including conference proceedings each year.

In 1983 the Board of NAEE decided to officially recognize the wider scope of NAEE’s membership and welcomed Canada and Mexico to the organization. Thus, the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE) was born with Joan’s assistance.

All the while, Joan, was the hardworking, highly organized leader of NAAEE although she preferred to stay in the background while the President and other Board members represented the organization and developed policy.

Joan retired from NAAEE in 1992  and from Brukner in 1997. In the years after her retirement, she continued volunteer work in her community and traveled extensively in the USA, as well as internationally.

We welcome members of the NAAEE community to share reflections and memories of Joan in the comments below. 



I was on the NAEE Board in the 1970s when we decided we needed to create a job description and hire our first ever staff member. It was a big move to leap from the volunteer leadership efforts of Robert and Bonnie McCabe, with the national organization housed in their home in Dade County FL, to creating the budget and organizational structures that could productively sustain paid staff. And we were nervous taking that step. One indicator: we decided not to call this person "Executive Director" because we didn't want someone to come in and take the organization in some unknown direction, but instead, settled on "Executive Secretary". In a meeting at O'Hare Airport, Board members flew in (each at our own expense) to interview the top applicants -- and Joan stood out. Her matter of fact, very thoughtful and organized presence differed markedly from others who were going to lead us in lofty (and as we saw it, sometimes inappropriate) directions. We all decided that she was just the person we needed! And she was. Joan was definitely a listener and team-player who had all the skills and savvy to bring NAEE up into a full-fledged national organization with solid records of membership and finances AND to work with volunteers from all over the country to coordinate and grow our organization and the programs that we offered. We were so fortunate to "find" each other at this pivotal juncture! And as you know from the many other testimonials that have already been written/posted, in addition to growing the organization, Joan garnered the respect and appreciation and friendship of many! What a great match it was!

As I've mentioned before, have a seat while I discuss Joan. It might take a while 1979 (actually 1978 when I first got my 8-year-old son involved in an alternative to Saturday morning cartoons and we spent that day at Brukner. He made birdhouses, and I worked in the gift shop). However, 1979 was when she got "the box", the "records" from Florida. Because I had bookkeeping experience, (I knew about debits and credits) she asked me to find a starting place for NAEE. What a chore! Like, find two figures that are sort of close. But what a beginning of a long, long, very special friendship. 13 years of NAEE conferences, all over North America, mostly US, but a couple in Canada, one in Cancun, until she retired - then another 27 years just being friends and fellow travelers. And every trip was an adventure, always something unexpected and funny. She was a gem! I'll miss her forever. I asked her one time when she was expounding on this and that (on the drive to a conference, Silver Bay, I think) "how do you know all these things?" I'll never forget her answer - "When you speak with authority…." She was right. At least, act like you know what you're talking about. Wonderful memories of a wonderful friend. Esther Marko

(Posted by Augusto Medina for Tom R. Hudspeth) Rice University is located in Houston, TX, where I grew up. Joan and husband Bob attended Rice, as did both my parents; and my father taught courses for >40 years in Business Law and Government there in addition to his law practice. So Joan and I often talked about what a great university Rice is, as well as what we liked and disliked about the Bayou City. I got to know Joan well in the early to mid 1980s—and to recognize how well organized she was, her excellent management skills, and all her behind-the-scenes efforts that helped our organization grow in stature and reputation. She was very helpful to me when I chaired what was then called the Environmental Studies Section. And it seemed that she personally knew every single member of our organization! She and John Disinger were instrumental to the Nominating Committee in suggesting members for leadership positions—especially in helping us in our efforts to diversify our membership and leadership (At that time, I think you could count all the NAAEE members who were people of color on two hands; and many of the leadership positions were filled by white males). NAAEE and the field of EE in general are deeply indebted to Joan for her selfless service over many years. I have really missed seeing her since she retired. Thomas R. Hudspeth Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies and Natural Resources Affiliate, Gund Institute for Environment University of Vermont Environmental Program and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources Founder and Co-coordinator, Greater Burlington Sustainability Education Network, a Regional Center of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development recognized by U.N. University