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‘Her whole goal was to make people better’: FTT community remembers Karen Croake Heisler

| Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Karen Croake Heisler is remembered as a cornerstone in the development and success of the television concentration in the Notre Dame department of film, television and theatre.

When she first started working at the University, the department was still named communications and theatre. Shortly after, the department was transformed to include a television major with heavy input from Heisler, associate television professor Christine Becker said.

“I relied a lot on her insights about what kinds of things did students want, what kinds of things did students need and then, kind of from that, built out the television major, so I was really grateful to her for her insights on those classes that continue to really be core classes in our major,” Becker said.

Heisler died Sunday, Sept. 19 from cancer-related complications. She was 67 years old.

Heisler began a long professional career at WNDU, the local NBC affiliate that was owned by the University at the time. Former adjunct television and journalism professor Gary Sieber first met Heisler at WNDU, where Sieber served as news director and Heisler as promotion manager.

“She became sort of the second person from the TV station who was teaching classes through what was at the time communications and theater,” Sieber said. “We were very close and obviously had a chance to see each other quite a bit and talk about a lot of different things.”

In her twenty-five years of teaching at Notre Dame, Heisler served as an adjunct, meaning she was a professional in her field who taught courses on the side. Heisler taught classes on broadcasting and cable television as well as sports and television — a wildly popular class among undergraduate students.

As adjunct faculty members, Sieber said he and Heisler shared a “small space” that served as an office for the two. Originally, they worked in the Decio faculty building before moving to a room in the basement of DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

As an educator, Heisler was known for her strict adherence to grammar.

“I think the students appreciated that,” Becker said. “She would hold you accountable for things [and] she wouldn’t let people get away with things.”

Sieber recalled how Heisler had a sign in her office that read, “I am silently correcting your grammar.”

“She and I are very much like that,” Sieber said. “We’re kindred spirits in that we were always pointing out grammatical flaws, we were very tough on our students about word choices and great grammar and punctuation.”

Sieber noted that with every correction Heisler gave to students, she always did it with an eye toward improvement.

“Her whole goal was to make people better — better writers, better people, better thinkers, critical thinkers and not just to accept things on their face,” Sieber said.

Heisler attended Purdue University and was always a “Boilermaker at heart,” Sieber said, but she also grew fond of Notre Dame.

“But she became a staunch supporter of Notre Dame, you know, through its programs and through its education,” Sieber said.

When Heisler retired from Notre Dame in 2019, Becker was the one who proposed renaming the television studies award in her honor. Becker recalled how Heisler was “very flattered and almost embarrassed” when Becker told her about the honor.

“I had a lot of fun like trying to explain to her ‘no, you’re exactly who we want, you’re exactly the name we want our students to carry forth when they put that award on their resume and they try to get a job,’” Becker said.

While she was a professional at work, Heisler’s colleagues remember her as a woman with a real personality.

“I appreciate a person who’s kind of a realist and can cut things down to size and things like that and sometimes people bristle at that kind of attitude … but especially coming into the office after a long day of teaching, she would say something funny or insightful or cynical and she was just so refreshing,” Becker said.

Heisler’s personality was not only appreciated by Becker and Sieber, as Becker remembered one colleague would always try to sit next to Heisler during “somewhat tedious” faculty meetings.

“She was really funny and really fun to be around,” Becker said.

Not only a great conversationalist, Sieber said Heisler was just as good a listener.

“Every semester we had a lot of great conversations about just a wide variety of topics — we talked about politics, we talked about sports, we talked about the media, we talked about our students, we just covered everything about our families,” Sieber said. “We had everything in common, you might say. And yet, we did still see certain things differently, but it never became an issue because I think both of us were willing to talk and listen, and I just had some of the most enjoyable conversations of my life when she was there.”

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About Alysa Guffey

Alysa is a junior pursuing a major in history with minors in digital marketing and journalism, ethics and democracy. While she calls Breen-Phillips her home on campus, she is originally from Indianapolis. She currently serves as the Notre Dame News Editor.

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