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OBITUARIES : Donald Heiney; Author and Founder of UCI Writing Program


Friends and colleagues are remembering San Gabriel Valley native Donald Heiney, a longtime UC Irvine professor of English and one of the founders of UCI's nationally acclaimed graduate program in writing, as a gifted writer and a dedicated teacher and mentor.

Heiney, who retired in 1991 after 26 years at UCI, died July 24 of a heart attack at his Newport Beach home. He was 71.

Heiney's son, Paul, said his father had been in generally good health and "there was no indication that he had any kind of fatal disease."

Sixteen novels by Heiney were published under the pen name MacDonald Harris. They include "Glad Rags," "Hemingway's Suitcase" and "The Balloonist," which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976.

At the time of his death, Heiney's 17th novel was being circulated among publishers by a literary agent and Heiney was at work on his 18th. His most recent novel, the Laguna Beach-set "A Portrait of My Desire," was published earlier this year.

Heiney began writing the book shortly after leaving UCI, where he had been instrumental in establishing the department of English and comparative literature after his arrival at the then-new campus in 1965.

Retirement from the academic world seemed to agree with him.

"I think I'm not so much producing more, but I'm producing better, " he said in a Times interview shortly after his latest novel's publication. "I've come to the conclusion that the university environment wasn't ideal for me. It didn't allow me enough freedom of imagination. My writing is getting a little crazier--I'm putting in more exclamation points."

Heiney said he realized "that even though I thought of myself as a free spirit, all those years I was writing with the thought of those 30 English professors looking over my shoulder."

Born Sept. 7, 1921, in South Pasadena, Heiney grew up there and in San Gabriel, where his family moved when he was 9. During World War II, he joined the merchant marine and finished the war as a naval officer in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Pacific.

After the war, he earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Redlands and advanced degrees from USC.

In 1982 he received the award in literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Sciences for the sum of his work, and in 1985 he received a special achievement award from the PEN Los Angeles Center for his novel "Tenth."

Friends remember Heiney as being dedicated to both his writing and his students.

Said novelist Oakley Hall, who co-directed the fiction portion of UCI's program in writing with Heiney for nearly 20 years before his own retirement in 1990:

"He and I built the best writing program in the country, and there are a great number of successful young writers whose careers were advanced by Don's very expert advice--in particular, Pat Geary, Roberta Smoodin, Marti Leimbach and Michael Chabon."

Chabon, a 1987 graduate, recalled Heiney as a "cosmopolitan man" who loved to travel and who stressed the importance of writers reading widely and cultivating the love of literature.

Heiney is survived by his wife of 45 years, Ann; his sons, Conrad and Paul; and one grandson. A memorial service is tentatively planned by the family for this fall.

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