The man behind Whatcom

Harold Heiner Former WCC President Colorby Andrew Edwards


After inheriting a college with no permanent campus and sporadic funding, Harold Heiner made it his life’s mission to provide students with accessible education and to continuously improve Whatcom Community College.

“Whatcom Community College wasn’t supposed to happen, pure and simple,” Heiner said.  When the college was first founded in 1967, it “had no campus, no mission, no buildings and no money.”  Essentially existing in name only in its early years, the college did not offer its first class until 1970.

Heiner retired from Whatcom in June 2007 at the age of 68, after serving 24 years as president, partially due to his battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Heiner started his career at Whatcom as Dean of Instruction in 1978.  He assumed his role as the college’s president in 1983 after the death of his predecessor William Laidlaw, and continued as president for the next 24 years.

In his time at Whatcom he saw the college evolve from a handful of separate locations around Whatcom County into its current layout.

Prominently displayed in Heiner’s home, amongst memorabilia from Whatcom’s past and souvenirs from travels to varied and distant countries, is a model of what he calls the college’s “first classroom”: a 1960s-era ambulance.

Heiner said this initial class—ambulance driving—typified one of Whatcom’s original goals of bringing affordable education to, and meeting the needs of, Whatcom County.

Following this guiding principle, the college consisted of a series of rented spaces which served as impromptu classrooms across the county.

“We offered classes wherever we could find a building,” he said.

Whenever Whatcom’s faculty felt there was an educational need going unfulfilled they taught classes, Heiner said.  At one point, the college had classrooms as far north as Lynden and Blaine, with curriculum catered to each area.

“We reasoned, ‘Lynden is a lot of farmers, they need to learn to milk cows, so we started offering dairy courses,’” Heiner said.  “Then we realized farmers don’t need to learn how to farm, they need to learn how to read and write and do business.”

With a truck full of books in lieu of a library, “we drove around and took books wherever we had educational needs,” Heiner said.

This decentralized model, referred to as “the college without walls,” continued to work until the mid-’80s, when, Heiner said, “I noticed we had something called ‘full-time students’ showing up.”

These students sometimes had to drive to several different locations each day to make it to all their classes, he said.  Realizing how difficult this might have been, he said it became apparent that the college needed a permanent location.

Whatcom opened its first permanent building—Laidlaw Center—in August of 1987 on farmland owned by the Syre family.  However, faced with a shortage of funds, Heiner said the college had to find alternate ways to acquire the land.

“The Syre family traded that land to the college in pieces over many trades,” he said.  In one such instance the college traded a portable building for a patch of swampland, which was then traded to the Syres for another parcel of land, Heiner said.

The fact that Whatcom was built without consistently reliable funding, and through the creativity of its faculty, is what Heiner says sets it apart from other colleges.

“The Whatcom way is not getting things done in a particular way, but getting them done one way or another,” Heiner said, pointing his finger for emphasis.

“I fully believe that we have discovered a secret of good teaching and learning,” he said.  “That is, we all have the questions and answers to life within us, we just need a little help to learn where to look.”

As a young man in Blanchard, he developed his attitudes towards education partly after he enlisted in the United States Marines.

“I noticed in the Marines that everyone had authority over me,” Heiner said.  “I analyzed why that might be and it came back loud and clear: ‘you don’t have a college degree, my dear.’”

After leaving the Marines, he attended Skagit Valley College before transferring to Western Washington University.  He then went on to earn a doctorate in education from the University of Washington.

“I decided that my life would not be limited, but it would be opened by a college education,” Heiner said.

“Everyone needs more education and it’s too expensive,” said Heiner, adding that Whatcom and schools like it can partially alleviate this problem by providing lower-cost programs.  “Half of the students served in higher education are served in community colleges,” he said.

“I view community colleges as the way to build futures for thousands of students every year,” said Heiner, adding that in order to ensure that these schools receive the funding they need to provide adequate resources and grow, “students must continue to let government and citizens know how important education is.”

Heiner said that his most cherished memories from the college continue to be “seeing teachers and students overcome all odds and prove that they can overcome the toughest of odds.”  Some of the most inspiring of these stories have come from international students, who hold special significance, he said.

“I traveled the world a couple of times looking for students,” said Heiner.  “We started off with students mostly from Japan, Peru and Mexico.”  The program has since grown with more than 25 countries currently represented.

“I really made my mark by developing international programs,” Heiner said.  Exposure to different cultures demonstrates students’ universal similarities, he said, adding “if we’re ever going to bring peace, we’ll bring it with other families [from around the world].”

Though his career was cut prematurely short, with so much to look back on, Heiner keeps a positive outlook on life, even in the face of difficulty.

“In 1991 I discovered I had Parkinson’s disease,” Heiner said.  “It is a progressive irreversible killer.  They say it can’t be beaten, but I expect to fight it for as long as I can.”

“I expect to eventually lose, but not without a long hard battle,” he continued.  “I still have some fight left.”

Even when talking about such a serious subject, Heiner can’t help but joke.  He has had both brain and heart surgery, which he said he had done to “prove in an objective way that I had a brain, I had a heart, I just had to get them out there.”

“Whatcom has been my life and first love,” said Heiner.  “Everyday I would move Whatcom forward to serve students.  If it wasn’t good for students, I wouldn’t do it.  If it was, I would move mountains and rocks to see it happen.”

2 thoughts on “The man behind Whatcom

  1. This is a fascinating look at Whatcom from the most important person in its history. It captures Heiner’s personality and humor with great respect. I can tell a lot of time and care went into the interview and writing of this fine piece. (I wish it was on page one of the website as it is in the print paper!)

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