By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Illinois theatre teacher Erica Heilmann was nominated for honorable mention at the Tony awards for demonstrating a monumental impact on the lives of students. Her story embodies strength, love and the power of purpose.
OAK LAWN, Ill.
Erica Heilmann missed the email telling her she was being honored at the Tony Awards.
Heilmann teaches theater at Thornton Fractional South High School in Lansing, Ill., and June 1 was the last day of school.
On June 5, emails went out to 20 teachers around the country informing them they'd earned honorable mentions for the Tonys' excellence in theatre education award.
"They sent it to my work email," Heilmann said. "School was out. I don't check my work email."
But her husband, former Oak Lawn Mayor David Heilmann, had a hunch. He spent June 11, the night of the Tonys, scouring the awards site for a mention of his wife, whose impact, he knew, was award-worthy.
Around 9 p.m., he found her name, the only one from Illinois, on a list of teachers granted honorable mentions for demonstrating monumental impact on the lives of students and embodying the highest standards of the profession.
Judges from the American Theatre Wing, the Broadway League and Carnegie Mellon University made the selections.
Rachel Harry of Hood River, Ore., won the top spot.
Heilmann has spent the past two decades nudging kids toward a love of theater, both at T.F. South and in Oak Lawn, Ill., where she directs the park district's Broadway Junior program for kids ages 6-14. Three of her own four kids (ages 6, 10, 12, and 15) are in the summer camp. In July, the campers are performing "Oklahoma."
"She never stops," said Corinne Kalebich, who grew up performing at Broadway Junior and now co-directs. "To say she's dedicated is an understatement."
When Heilmann's youngest daughter was 10 days old, Heilmann, 42, was diagnosed with thymoma, a disease in which cancer cells form on the outside surface of the thymus gland.
"The doctor thought it was just heartburn for a long time," Heilmann said. "After my daughter was born, I went in for a scan, and they found a 9-centimeter mass in the center of my chest."
She went through chemotherapy and radiation, followed by a full sternotomy to remove the tumor, followed by more chemotherapy and radiation. A year and a half later, the cancer returned.
Heilmann travels to Indianapolis every Wednesday to see a thymoma specialist and receive chemotherapy, which is about the only intrusion she'll grant the disease.
"For our teen show, we were doing 'Cats,' and she was doing costume checks from the hospital," Kalebich said, "FaceTiming the kids to make sure everything looked OK."
She scheduled one of her surgeries around "Annie."
"The doctor probably thought I was completely insane," Heilmann said. "I said, 'Well, I'm directing 'Annie,' and I want to be there for the kids, and I don't want them to be worried about me. Can we just schedule it a week later? I mean, the cancer's not going anywhere.'"
The doctor acquiesced.
One of Heilmann's T.F. South students nominated her for the Tony Award. The theater students worked with assistant principal Becky Szuba and some Broadway Junior folks to pull together a three-minute nominating video.
"These kids are growing up in a crazy world," Heilmann says in the video. "Now, more than ever, they need to realize the power theater has to bring people together."
Heilmann, who grew up near Midway Airport, in Chicago, got hooked on theater in sixth grade, when her school performed "The King and I." She attended Queen of Peace High School in Burbank, where she says she took any part she could get, onstage or backstage.
"I wanted to be my high school drama teacher," she said. "I like to eat, and I like to go shopping, so I never wanted to be the starving artist on Broadway. I wanted to teach." (Thomas Witting was her drama teacher. He now chairs the fine arts department at Reavis High School in Burbank. Ill.)
Heilmann earned a degree in theater education from Illinois State University and tried out for Oak Lawn's community production of "West Side Story", her favorite musical, after graduation. She met her husband at the theater the following summer.
"Erica is someone who has turned to the theater for strength," David Heilmman told me, "while simultaneously showing every student, every young child, every teen what it means to give it all in theater and life."
Heilmann says she was floored when she learned about the Tony honorable mention. She and the Broadway Junior kids and staff gathered at a pub after rehearsal June 11, and the award, she said, was the furthest thing from her mind.
"All the other people are watching hockey, like most normal sports bars, and then the weird theater people come in and go, 'Turn the Tonys up!' " she said. "We watched the majority of it, and about 9 o'clock we decided it was time to go home."
That's when her husband came running into the living room carrying a laptop screen with her name in (LCD) lights. He posted the news on Facebook, and the notes began flooding in.
Heilmann didn't miss those emails.
"The outpouring of love, as a teacher, that can keep you going for another 20 years," she said. "To hear you've made a difference, that means more to me than anything."
Heilmann figures this won't be her last brush with the Tonys.
"I'm hoping one day to be there watching a student receive an award," she said. "That would be the greatest accomplishment, to be able to sit there and go, 'That's my kid! I taught that kid!' That would be the coolest thing. Someday."