A Love Without End
St. Louis Legate Mike Heck ensures his late wife’s memory lives on through his witness
Whenever Mike Heck would ask his wife Jeannie what he could do to make her happy, she replied, “Do what God wants you to do.”
Since Jeannie’s death from cancer on Sept. 2, 2014, Heck has continued heeding those words by comforting and encouraging others who are dealing with serious illness or grief.
A member of Legatus’ St. Louis Chapter, Heck has inspired thousands by sharing the story of how he and Jeannie responded to the cross of terminal illness. Legatus recognized Heck’s ministry by awarding him the 2015 Bowie Kuhn Special Award for Evangelization.
When friends and clients in similar straits tell him, “Mike, if you can get through it, we can get through it,” Heck responds, “It’s not just about getting through it. It’s about understanding how grateful we should be for the gifts God has given us and the purpose he has for us. The end is still the same – salvation. He wants us to take a different path to get there – for his reasons, not ours. Can you be open to that?”
Throughout their 37-year marriage, the Hecks always knew that they were on earth to serve others. Up until Jeannie “went to heaven,” as Heck says, his own service mainly took the form of working for their parish — Mary, Mother of the Church — and serving on the boards of educational institutions and nonprofit organizations.
Now, said the Hecks’ daughter Christy Sobush, her father’s service is more personal. “He still spends a lot of time helping, but it’s more one-on-one with people.”
Jeannie Heck, a nurse by profession, also had a gift of caring for others, her daughter said. “She was always taking meals to people and always available for someone who needed to talk.”
People who knew the Hecks often expressed admiration for their marriage, which only grew stronger when Jeannie became ill and was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer.
“My parents have always been very much in love,” said Sobush, who remembers being embarrassed in front of her friends in middle school when her parents held hands in the car.
“Theirs was a beautiful love story,” said Robin Hake, who with her husband Jack got to know the Hecks through Legatus and attended Legatus Summits with them. “I never saw a cross look between them. It was just incredible.”
Calling them a “perfect match,” Jack said, “Mike was always the effervescent, outgoing one and Jeannie was always quiet and laid back, but they blended beautifully.”
“Together,” added Robin, “they had a warmth and love that came across to everybody.”
The Hecks met in the Student Commons during their first week as freshmen at St. Louis University.
“What I saw,” Heck recalled, “was a radiant gentleness and sweetness that consumed me. And everybody else saw it, too. She walked in with this beautiful smile and people just kind of stopped and looked and smiled. Everybody wanted to be around her. It wasn’t because she was the life of the party. It was because she was just kind. She glowed God’s goodness.”
After Jeannie finished nursing school and Mike earned his master’s degree, they were married on May 13, 1977. Until his wife’s death, Heck said he and Jeannie worked and played hard, raising their children — they also have a son, Steven — and sharing their lives with others.
Today, Heck wakes up every morning and looks at Jeannie’s picture, tells her how much he loves and misses her and how happy he is that she is in heaven. Then he thanks her and God for being so good to him. “That’s my prayer,” he said.
Out of that has come a new ministry of meeting with people in sorrow and sometimes leading family prayer services for them. That, in turn, has led to other opportunities. When the Archdiocese of St. Louis began to hear about the people Heck was helping, he was invited to speak to the archdiocesan curia about what it means to be a Catholic leader.
Since then, Heck also has addressed Legatus’ Lake Charles Chapter in Louisiana. In both talks, he explained how Jeannie never held an office or title or served on a board. “But by her example, she was the face of God and led people to heaven.”
Shortly after Jeannie’s funeral, Heck began thinking about what he could do to help those who had been touched by his wife’s life and death. With the help of several of her friends, he planned a “Celebration of Kindness” at their parish which included a dinner and presentation on looking for the good in others. Heck said he chose the theme for the event because his wife was known for her kindness.
Since Jeannie’s passing, Heck, who is president of the board of the St. Patrick Center in St. Louis, has also promoted adding a chapel to the center as part of its outreach to homeless people. As he was starting to come to terms with God’s purpose for him, he realized that, although the center provided people with shelter, clothing and other essentials, nothing could be more important than their spiritual health.
“When somebody says your health is everything, they’re usually talking about physical health. But if you don’t have spiritual health at your center, all the rest can fall apart.” Heck said he saw that clearly during his wife’s illness because of her strong spiritual life.
His hope is that the chapel will be a place for the thousands of homeless people who come through the center’s doors, along with staff members, donors and neighbors, to seek God’s presence.
Heck credits Jeannie and Legatus, plus time spent in prayer, with giving him the idea for another outreach — a monthly event in his parish called “Live from Mary Mother, It’s Saturday Night.” The evening, which follows the regular Saturday Vigil Mass, includes dinner and a presentation in a format similar to that of Legatus chapter events.
Many of Jeannie’s friends have asked Heck if he is angry with God for taking his wife to heaven when he did.
“I’ve never been mad at God,” he said. “I’ve been very, very sad, but never mad at God. God gave me this magnificent gift. How could I be mad? I’m going to be sad forever to an extent. But at the same time, I’m so grateful for this gift, and in my soul, so happy she’s in heaven.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.