To be the difference; that’s all Phi Theta Kappa alumna Dr. Marie Davis Heim has ever wanted to do in the life of a student, a child, an elderly adult, and anyone else who crossed her path. It’s what she was born to do, although it hasn’t always happened the way she thought it would.
In 1972, Heim became the first African American woman inducted into Phi Theta Kappa in several southern states when she became a member of the Gamma Nu Chapter at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College – Perkinston Campus (MGCCC). While segregation and integration were all around her, she didn’t view her induction as a “black/white thing,” she said. Rather, it was a way for her to show her peers of all colors what they too could achieve.
“To get into Phi Theta Kappa was such an honorable thing,” she said. “It’s such great recognition for what you’ve done, and it inspires you to do more. And, you know you have to live up to the standards of the organization.”
Heim was raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by parents who instilled in her the drive to make her educational dreams a reality. Two bits of advice from them have always stayed with her. From her father, a cement finisher: “With a good foundation, you can build anything.” From her mother, who was pivotal in bringing a Head Start Program to the Coast and keeping it there: “Do it right, or not at all.”
She took their advice to heart as she worked her way through MGCCC, graduating with highest honors and earning a spot in the college’s Hall of Fame. She continued her education at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM).
“It speaks volumes of what my life is all about now, because I did have that foundation, supportive family and friends, people who made sure I made it,” Heim said.
This foundation became especially important at the end of Heim’s junior year at USM. As she prepared to take her final exams, she found her vision failing to the point that she had to hold the test paper at the end of her nose in order to read it.
By the time the semester was over, she was completely blind. Her mother took her fishing every day to help keep her mind off the countless doctors appointments. For the first time, she began to lose hope in being able to do what she knew she was born to do: lead and inspire others.
The community rallied around her with prayers and support. A brain tumor was thought to be the cause, but ultimately the blindness was determined to be a side effect of medication she was taking. As she registered for classes for her senior year, her sight returned.
“I didn’t give up, and people didn’t give up on me,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Upon the completion of her bachelor’s degree, Heim returned to the Gulf Coast to teach at Jefferson Davis Elementary School in Long Beach and Stone Elementary School in Wiggins before joining the staff of MGCCC – Jefferson Davis Campus. She taught ABE/GED courses and served as a contract workforce trainer over the course of her 30-year career at the college. She was named Instructor of the Year twice, in 1982 – again, the first African American to receive the honor – and in 2003.
“When you got Dr. Heim as an instructor, you were in for the growth experience of your life,” said Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner, Phi Theta Kappa’s Chief Information and Research Officer, who worked with Heim at MGCCC. “Not only were you going to increase your reading level a click or two, but you were also going to learn about life and how to survive and thrive in college.
“If you were one of Dr. Heim’s students, you were very blessed. Long before college instructors were encouraged to create an active learning environment,’ she had already invented and perfected it.”
Heim returned to school to complete a master’s degree at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and a doctorate degree at USM. She retired in 2004 but continues to teach part time at both MGCCC and William Carey. Also in 2004, the Mississippi-Louisiana Region honored her as a Most Distinguished Alumnae.
“Dr. Heim is a wonderful person and an exceptional member of Phi Theta Kappa,” Tincher-Ladner said. “She has applied the hallmarks of the Society to every aspect of her life. She is dedicated to excellence in all that she does as a learner, a teacher, a mother and a mentor.”
Heim remains a beloved fixture on the MGCCC campus and in the community. She was instrumental in establishing the Helping Hands-Warming Hearts program with The Salvation Army, which collects coats and blankets for the homeless. Her latest venture is Survival Packs for Kids, a partnership with the Department of Human Services that provides backpacks or small suitcases of clothes, toys, games, toiletries and other necessities for children removed from their homes.
She also serves on the Mississippi Humanities Council, she visits with the elderly in convalescent homes, she participates with Toys for Tots and the Angel Tree Program, and she and her teenage son recently collected supplies for the local animal shelter.
“I’m 60 years old, and all I have done is take care of kids, the elderly and pets,” Heim said. “And I just thank God, and I thank the people around me for giving me the opportunity to do it.
“I was born to do this, and I’ll die trying to do it. And any day I can go fishing, I go fishing.”