Robert “Bob” Heath has done everything but whittle away his retirement years.
The nearly 74-year-old professor emeritus remains quite busy, but not as one would imagine — golfing, fishing or sailing. Instead, Heath devotes much of his time focused on academic work — issues management/public relations topics dear to him.
In the four years since he taught his last class at the University of Houston in 2011, Heath has published three books, has two books in press, finished two book proposals, traveled to academic conferences across the U.S. and Europe and served as a visiting professor at two distinguished European universities; surprisingly Heath achieved all these accomplishments all while continuing “to carve 21 acres of livable space out of brush and woods” from land 18 miles northeast of La Grange, Texas.
“I have recently become proficient at growing olives,” Heath said, referring to the projects he and his wife share on land they purchased in 1996, 15 years before he received a professor emeritus title from the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences’ Jack J. Valenti School of Communication.
“We have two pet Holstein steers to help as groundskeepers. These are my second pair (Black and Decker) to replace Salt and Pepper who shuffled off the mortal coil, but not to the slaughter house,” Heath added.
Heath’s dry wit and intense teaching style are legendary among countless UH students. But it is his research and publications that have made him an internationally renowned scholar of public relations, crisis and risk communication, issues management and business-to-business communication. His publications include more than 120 articles and chapters and 22 books, including second editions and multi-volume collections. Among the many books Heath has authored are “The Encyclopedia of Public Relations” and “Today’s Public Relations.” Both are used in university classrooms.
His numerous accolades are evidence of his legacy in the field of public relations and include the 2007 Issue Management Council’s W. Howard Chase Award. This award recognizes contributions to the evolution of issues management. Heath is also the recipient of the 2007 Public Relations Society of America Excalibur Legacy Award, which acknowledges outstanding contributions to the profession from someone who has been active in the field for 25 years or more. This summer, Heath received yet another honor: A two-day international public relations conference, held in Barcelona, Spain, that paid tribute to his research.
A career as a professor, though, was far from Heath’s mind as a young man living on a small farm just outside of Hotchkiss, Colorado. At that time, Heath’s passion was for the theatre, which he pursued at Western Colorado State University (WCSU) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After failing to be cast in a major role in a play, despite being assured that he was “star material’’ by a professor, Heath eventually joined the debate team.
“I never did theatre again after I became interested in debating,” said Heath, who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in speech communication and theatre from WCSU in 1963.
Several years later, while working as an instructor and director of forensics at the University of New Mexico, Heath applied to Purdue University’s doctoral program but was denied admission because, he was told, he lacked “academic promise.”
“Out of desperation, I went to the University of Illinois, which gave me a fellowship, Heath explained. “The woman who taught communication theory established the foundation of my academic career. She taught the work of Kenneth Burke.”
Heath not only wrote his doctoral dissertation on Burke, an American literary and language theorist, he also drew extensively on Burke’s theories throughout his UH career, which began in 1971. At that time, Heath said UH provided faculty a lot of academic freedom to develop curriculum and conduct research. In those days, Heath’s research focused on the rhetoric of social activists during the anti-war protests, the civil rights movement and the environmental movement.
By the mid-1980s, just as the nation had changed, so had UH. The University’s student population and faculty had grown and so had its administration, Heath noted.
As for him, Heath continued teaching large sections, averaging about 15 hours per semester “to generate credit hours and teach specialty courses to keep the program prospering,” he said, adding proudly that UH offered one of the best risk communication programs in the world.
“I am a traditionalist in that I believe in the elitism of academics, meaning universities should offer an environment where academic ideas and innovation are encouraged, which translate into a superb education for students,” Heath said.
“That is why I have committed my life to conducting research and developing publications which lead to world-class ideas and which strengthen the academic experience of students.”
In the classroom, Heath admitted working his students hard but rewarding them with good grades when they excelled. He also gave them an opportunity to conduct research, noting that he co-authored 22 articles with master’s-level students.
“I tried to instill in my students that they must have a thorough understanding of their discipline both intellectually and ethically,” Heath said.
Although his teaching and research took precedent, Heath also held several administrative positions, including associate director of the School of Communication, Graduate Studies and Curriculum Development.
Now with his UH career behind him, Heath enjoys spending time with his wife of nearly 50 years, daughter and four grandchildren, and traveling to such countries as Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand.
Heath also takes pleasure in genealogical research. “My wife’s family members were Confederates. My family was mostly Union supporters. I’ve only found two Confederates in my family,” said Heath, who owns 80 books on the Civil War and subscribes to the magazines Blue and Gray, and Civil War Times. Although 22 of Heath’s male ancestors fought in the Civil War, it was his grandmother who blazed a trail in her youth and inspired him.
“My granddad on my mom’s side moved from Kansas to Colorado in 1898. In 1909, he sent a letter to my grandmother, asking her to marry him. They hadn’t seen each other in more than 10 years,” Heath said. “My grandmother, who had a eighth-grade education, was a certified teacher as well as a reporter, typesetter and proofreader for a small newspaper in Kansas. She was an amazing woman.
“She often read Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘My Day’ column to my two cousins and me,” Heath said. “She impressed upon us the notion that we should aspire to achieve.”
Her inspirational rhetoric greatly influenced the young men, one of whom received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Heath’s other cousin became a veterinarian. And clearly, there is no debating Heath’s success, which can’t be measured by “stacks of awards and plaques” alone, but by his research, record of publication and former students, many of whom have found their own success.
So, what’s next for this veteran scholar?
“More writing and researching, of course,” Heath said.
He and Jaesub Lee, another UH professor, continue to conduct a longitudinal study of the risks people who live near the Houston Ship Channel face. They recently learned an article from that work will be published in the journal Risk Analysis.
And on the off chance academic boredom ever sets in, Heath noted he always has his woodworking shop and farm.
“I produced a good potato crop this year,” Heath said. “Raccoons ate most of the peaches, but I don’t take these things too seriously. Now, we wait for the olives to produce.”