MDA retiree who perished in shipwreck is identified
By Janet Kubat Willette
Date Modified: 05/14/2012 3:48 PM
ST. PAUL — The Heil family received notice on April 17 that the remains of their parents, Gerald and Barbara, were positivity identified.
The Minnesota couple perished in the Costa Concordia shipwreck that occurred Jan. 13 off the coast of Italy.
Gerald Heil, better known as Jerry, was a longtime Minnesota Department of Agriculture employee, starting at the department in 1976. He was director of the Agricultural Development Division when he retired in 2006, said Mary Hanks, who now directs the Agricultural Marketing and Development Division of the state agriculture department.
Hanks worked with Heil for 15 years. He hired her and several others who remain at the department. She estimates that half the people in the department worked for Heil at one time.
"He mentored most of us," Hanks said.
When she reflects on Heil, she remembers how he was always thinking and planning.
"He was a long-range thinker and he was most comfortable working behind the scenes," Hanks said.
Heil didn't like to be up front, he was the kind of leader who would direct from behind. He was also the kind of leader who was aware of his shortcomings.
"He knew that he didn't know everything and he surrounded himself with staff and with colleagues that complimented what he knew," Hanks said.
Heil was originally from South Dakota and grew up on a farm, Hanks said, so he understood what being a farmer entailed. His educational background was in planning and rural sociology, which he complemented by bringing in technical folks as advisers.
Heil always asked if what the agriculture department proposed to do would make farmers' jobs easier.
He was the kind of leader who brought staff in to walk through ideas to gather opinions on where the idea might go, Hanks said. And if something was going to impact a staff member, he brought that staff member into the conversation.
"Jerry was an excellent example of how to work with people … respect everyone's knowledge and expertise," Hanks said.
Heil also wanted results, she said. He wanted a smart and better government for Minnesotans.
He wasn't a saint, none of us are, but he set an excellent example, Hanks said.
Heil was instrumental in setting up the state's ag land preservation program, which is available to counties outside the metropolitan area. The program allows landowners to place a covenant on land that restricts its use in exchange for tax credits and other benefits.
He was also instrumental in establishing the state's sustainable agriculture program, which dates to 1989 and was enacted as part of the Groundwater Protection Act. He helped establish the state's agricultural best management practices loan program and worked on planning how to spend money collected as part of the clean water, land and legacy amendment prior to its passage.
Hanks kept in touch with Heil after he retired. Occasionally, a group of 10 or 12 from the department would meet with him for dinner. They talked about their families and also tossed ideas out to him to get his response and his ideas on how to proceed.
"We missed him when he retired. We miss him very much."