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Alfred Heller

1929 - 2019
Alfred Heller Obituary
Alfred E. Heller


Alfred E. Heller, an editor, writer, environmental advocate, and leading authority on international expositions, passed away on December 20 in San Rafael after a short illness. He was 90 years old.
Mr. Heller was a fourth generation Californian. A progressive, forward thinker, he was one of the early environmentalists in California to see beyond the wilderness to a golden state that needed protection from the unchecked, unprecedented economic development of the mid-20th century. He founded a small, influential citizens' group in 1962, called California Tomorrow. Its landmark publication, California Going, Going…, was the first study to address the state's deteriorating environment; and many of the major recommendations made in California Going, Going… and the group's quarterly publication, Cry California, became environmental laws and policies that protected the integrity of the state.
Concerned over the impact of conventional agriculture on the soil and groundwater, Mr. Heller endowed a chair in Agroecology at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1982. It was the first endowed chair created at that university.
The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco developed in Mr. Heller a lifelong love of world's fairs and he became an expert on them. From 1981 to 1995, he published and edited World's Fair, a quarterly magazine (now www.worldsfairs.com), and in 1999 he released the book, World's Fairs and the End of Progress. In 2015, Mr. Heller attended his 20th world exposition, in Milan, Italy. Alfred Edward Heller (Alf) was the second son of financier Edward Hellman Heller and Elinor Raas Heller, the first woman to chair the University of California Board of Regents. His great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, a key figure in the development of California's banking, oil, transportation, education, water and wine industries, was an early president of Wells Fargo Bank.
Mr. Heller was educated at Peninsula School in Menlo Park, The Putney School in Vermont, and Stanford University where he entered the creative writing program newly initiated by novelist, historian and environmentalist Wallace Stegner, who became his academic advisor. In the summer of 1947, Mr. Heller participated in a Sierra Club wilderness excursion led by conservationist and mountaineer David Brower, subsequently the club's executive director. Mr. Heller would later say that Mr. Brower's campfire lectures were inspirational moments in his young life. During the Korean War, Mr. Heller volunteered into the US Army. He graduated from Officer Candidate School in Fort Bliss, Texas, and served as an artillery lieutenant in Korea during the immediate post-armistice period.
In 1955, Mr. Heller married Ruth Botsford, also a Stanford graduate. The couple first lived in Vermont where Mr. Heller taught English at Putney School, then New York, before settling in Grass Valley, CA, an old mining town in the Sierra foothills, to raise a family. There, Mr. Heller started a weekly newspaper, the Nevada County Nugget, and became its publisher and editor. He used the newspaper to advocate successfully for important environmental projects in Nevada County, including the transformation of a former hydraulic gold mine, Malakoff Diggins, into a state park. After an unsuccessful community campaign to stop a freeway from being built through the heart of Nevada City, almost destroying the quaint old assay office where Mr. Heller ran his newspaper, Mr. Heller started the statewide conservation organization, California Tomorrow.
For California Tomorrow's 1962 publication, California, Going, Going…, which he coauthored with Samuel E. Wood, Mr. Heller coined the word "slurbs" (defined as sloppy, sleazy, slipshod, slovenly semi-cities) which eventually made its way into the Merriam Webster and Oxford English dictionaries. In 1966, Mr. Heller moved the California Tomorrow office to San Francisco, and his family to Marin, where he remained until his death. In the 1970's, Cry California published "The California Tomorrow Plan," edited and largely written by Mr. Heller, calling for comprehensive planning to preserve the state's beauty and enrich the lives of its citizens.
A lifetime of travel on many continents began for Mr. Heller in 1937 when, at age 6, his parents took him, his brother and sister, to (pre-World-War-II) Europe aboard the Deco-splendid French liner Normandie. During his adult years he and Ruth often took family members abroad to world's fairs. Among his most memorable trips was to Nairobi, Kenya, during the Carter administration, as an official member of the US delegation to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) General Assembly.
Mr. Heller was a founding trustee and the first president of the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation, established by his brother to support programs that helped the environment, human health, education and the arts. Over a span of years, he was a member of the California and national boards of governors of The Nature Conservancy, and on the boards of the Planning and Conservation League, the Trust for Public Land, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), and the Resource Renewal Institute. He served on the executive boards of the Stanford Alumni Association and the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. A rower since college, he enjoyed his time as an active member of the Marin Rowing Association. He and his wife were longtime supporters of the Marin Symphony, where he served on the board and as president.
Mr. Heller was an incisive and original thinker, a gifted writer and editor, and a mentor to many. He had a lifelong love of classical music, Lake Tahoe, and hiking in the great state of California.
In addition to Ruth, his wife of 64 years, Mr. Heller is survived by four daughters, Miranda Heller (Mark Salkind), Katherine Heller (Rolf Lygren), Anne Heller Anderson (Lee Anderson), and Janet Heller Harckham, eight grandchildren, Haley Tone (Riley Maddox), Nathan Tone (Alyssa Bernstein), Emilie Lygren, Erika Lygren, Kendall Anderson, Brooke Anderson, Emma Harckham (Mike Dixon) and Kate Harckham, and one great grandchild. His brother Clarence Heller and sister Elizabeth Mandell predeceased him. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the League to Save Lake Tahoe.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle from Dec. 29, 2019 to Jan. 5, 2020
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