If you drive down Cloud Street in Salina—the street that skirts the south side of the KWU campus—you may see a woman walking her very small dog. It may seem like the only thing out of the ordinary is the particularly diminutive size of the dog, but that would not be the case. This woman has traveled the world, thrown hand grenades, and here in Kansas, she has spent time as the Ottawa County attorney and now is a student at Kansas Wesleyan. She is Kristin Heck, and her story is the very antithesis of ordinary.
Kristin, who many around KWU know as Kris, grew up in the Salina area with her family before going to Bartlesville, Okla. to attend what is now Oklahoma Wesleyan. Those early years contained a harbinger of what was to come.
“When I went to OKWU in 1976, they only offered a social studies degree, not a true history degree,” said Heck. “My advisor told me that if I wanted to go to law school, that wasn’t the right degree for me because of the way the program was structured, and it was good advice. I always wanted to major in history, but that degree at OKWU wasn’t right for me.”
Heck went on to get her undergraduate in business administration, and after returning to Salina, had what proved to be a transitory moment shortly after graduating.
“My sister Judi, who lived here in Salina with me, piped up one day and said, ‘Let’s go see the Air Force recruiter!” Heck remembered with a smile. “This was during the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was building the military back up and there were a lot of jobs, more than there had been in many years. We enlisted together—me in supply, her in transportation—and wound up stationed together on Okinawa. It was a great experience, and our parents were even able to come visit us, but there came a point in the early nineties—during a draw-down under President Clinton—that I looked around and decided that if I was going to work this hard, I wanted to work hard for myself and see where that took me.”
With that, Kris left the Air Force and returned to her native Kansas to attend law school. She graduated from Washburn in 1994 and went into private practice, before becoming the Ottawa County attorney for one term in the mid-nineties. She then returned to Saline County, where she prosecuted juvenile cases for a time, and she did all that while serving in the Army Reserve’s Judge Advocate General Corps.
“I went to work for the Army full-time shortly after 9/11,” said Heck. “I never regretted that decision, not for a second. I got to do some incredible things; things I never did in the Air Force. They let me sleep in tents, they let me pull the lanyard on a howitzer…they even let me throw hand grenades!”
Heck’s love for history came in handy during her time in the Army, when she spent a year in Iraq and additional time in Kuwait. Eleven moves from 2003–2012, many of them for deployments, put her into areas that have served as some of history’s front lines.
“The military loves history, and when you’re in the service, you study it all the time,” said Heck. “There’s officer professional development once a month, always about a battle or leader you want to learn from or emulate. There’s also the opportunity to see and study locations that are critical in the development of civilization. For example, I saw the Ziggurat of Ur, near the historic home of Abraham. I also saw another site that was said to be his oasis. If you’re thinking about history from a Christian or Islamic perspective, the entire area of Iraq is steeped in it.”
It wasn’t just the Middle East, however, that provided Heck with living history lessons. She worked for the First Army from 2008 until retiring in 2018. This was the Army unit of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, and that gave her the opportunity to study key elements of that conflict.
“When I retired, I went to Europe and toured the World War I battlefields,” says Heck. “I heard a lecture once that said every American should go to Europe once, just to walk through the cemeteries and understand the sacrifices. That’s very true and a fact that our nation tends to forget.”
In 2018, Heck was ready to retire for the second time, after leaving the Army full-time in 2012. Equipped with her GI bill, she was financially ready, but needed a place to go.
“After spending my entire life traveling, I never thought about retiring to Salina,” chuckled Heck. “My sister Betty retired here with her husband, and I began to crunch numbers, check cost-of-living and take a look at built-in social networks—I still have high school friends here that I socialize with. One day, I came house-hunting and decided to come back, use my GI Bill and finally get that history degree at Kansas Wesleyan.”
With that decision came new challenges, but the kind environment nurtured at KWU has helped Heck immensely in this new phase of life.
“You would think with me being such a non-traditional student, the other students wouldn’t have a thing in common with me,” offered Heck. “And yet, they are very engaging and interested in me, and they appreciate my interest in them. They don’t ‘put on’ for me either, they’re just really good, genuine people. The professors have been so helpful and patient helping me navigate through this whole new world, but more than anything, the other students have been extremely helpful. This has been a great choice for me. There are moments where I think, ‘Why did I do this?’, but I am so glad I did.”
Heck has not only built relationships with students, but also with the faculty and staff in her hometown after completing an internship on historical research with President Matt Thompson’s office this past summer.
“Doing the internship this summer gave me a great appreciation for how valuable KWU is to Salina,” said Heck. “I would love to continue my historical research on KWU, to help people understand more about the school. I want to volunteer though, because I want to continue to travel. I’ve always loved to travel—I got the travel bug—so I want to be free to do that.”
So what is Heck’s advice to the students, the generation that has been so kind to her?
“Travel while you feel well and take care of yourself,” she offers. “Take care of yourself when you’re young, because that will be the same body you’ll have when you’re older.”
The next time you drive down Cloud Street or one of its neighboring roads, and see that woman walking the dog? Stop and say hello. You will be greeted with warmth, and may learn a bit of history as well.
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you want to read more about Kristin Heck, pick up Monday’s copy of the Salina Journal.