Because she was almost 5-foot-10 as a high school freshman, Jan Heiteen was projected as a promising volleyball and basketball player. So you can imagine that she is amused to find herself being inducted into a national Hall of Fame that already includes Illinois products Red Grange, Dike Eddleman, Quinn Buckner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
"When I was young, people thought I should play volleyball or basketball," Heiteen recalled. "As a freshman, I gravitated to sports first. I played basketball. But I fell over a small girl and sprained my ankle. So someone suggested I should try stage makeup with the theatre department and I never left."
Heiteen, a 1974 graduate of Maine East in Des Plaines and a 1978 graduate of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, is the 24th Illinois product to be selected to the National Federation of State High School Associations National High School Hall of Fame. She will be honored at the NFHS' annual summer meeting on July 11 in Nashville, Tennessee.
An English teacher, head speech coach and drama director at Downers Grove South since 1980, Heiteen has produced over 80 plays, musicals and talent shows. She also has fashioned 16 team state champions and 75 individual state champions in speech.
That's not all. Her Downers Grove South team won the Illinois High School Association's Group Interpretation Team State Championship in 1992 and one of her prize students, Kyle Ackerman, was named National Forensic League Student of the Year in 2008.
She was inducted into the National Forensic League's Hall of Fame in 2009 and received the Edith Harrod Award for distinguished service from the Illinois Speech and Theatre Association.
"The honor blows me away. It is so spectacular. I'm kind of blown away by the whole thing. I even got a letter from the president of the University of Illinois (her alma mater)," Heiteen said. "The honor is lovely. It represents all the kids I have had the privilege of working with."
She hardly had time to celebrate. She just finished a talent show, a fund-raiser for the school's speech and theatre club group, and attended the national qualifier for the National Forensic League. She is working on an upcoming musical version of "Kiss Me Kate" while trying to decide among five or six plays for a Children's Theatre production for advanced acting students and preparing for the national debate and speech tournament in June.
Somewhere between all of that, in what she refers to as "my spare time," she and her husband are planning a trip to Las Vegas during spring break to visit her mother and also travel to Long Beach, California, to attend the marriage of a former student who was a 1995 and 1996 state champion.
"Twenty years ago, someone said to me: 'Why keep coaching? You won the state title.' It isn't about winning state titles, it's about educating kids," she said. "I can't imagine ever not coaching or doing theatre. I still want to work in arts. That's my passion.
"Maybe I'll work with junior high school programs and get kids involved earlier. Or I'll mentor young coaches. Or work with senior communities doing theatre. Last year, I did 'Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten,' a great experience with older audiences."
Like most teachers and coaches, Heiteen is excited and inspired whenever "the light goes on" and another of her students realizes for the first time that he or she has accomplished something, that he or she has what it takes to be successful in the class or play or musical or debate or speech.
"What is interesting about our competition in speech and forensics is you see it at different levels," Heiteen said. "A kid can be successful and not be a champion. Kids can be successful at their own level and be able to improve each week. As a teacher, you see kids learn. You know when they move from Point A to B and on to C. It's like the wonderment of a teacher in the classroom when a student writes a first draft and the second draft is better.
"These kids know that acting is a process and they recognize that competitively they can reach their highest level, that growth is essential to their progress as a student and artist. That's my satisfaction. I don't measure my success in championships only.
"Titles are swell. But when we go to competitions, we take a team of 80 students, only one per event to represent us. If you focus only on championships at the end of the year, you are missing the point. It is about getting the kids from Point A to Point B."
Heiteen is a teachercoachrecruiter, like a football coach or a basketball coach. Her students characterize her as a tough, no-nonsense drill sergeant who expects them to be professional and represent the school with dignity and respect. "Or else they are in trouble with me," she said.
"If there is a rehearsal time, you are there. Don't call in sick for a tournament. I tell them not to call me on Saturday morning unless you are bleeding from the eyes. In fact, parents have called to say their kid was throwing up but not bleeding from the eyes."
Last year, her students presented her with a book entitled "How to coach speech, you are doing it wrong," a compilation of quotes or otherwise ridiculous statements she is alleged to have uttered over the years. "I have no recollection of saying some of those things but apparently I did," she said.
"This isn't my first rodeo" and "bleeding from the eyes" are two of her favorites. She also has been known to promise puppies to students "if they do it right." And the puppies will all speak French, she said.
But Heiteen has established a set of rules for her program that any football or basketball coach would envy. Speech hair, not beach hair. Girls in heels, not flip-flops or sneakers. Boys in suits and ties. This is the pros, not a rookie league.
"I am very particular about their professional attire. It's not like you are about to go clubbing," she said. "I have very strict guidelines about competitive dress. I am very picky about the way they dress. I expect them to look like they can go into a court of law and defend something. They know my expectations.
"I don't sugarcoat things. If it is bad, I will say it. At the end of the day, I hope they know where all of my gruffness and in-your-face stuff comes from. I adore these kids, my super stars and my babies."
Heiteen's interest in theatre was triggered when a neighbor persuaded her to serve as an usher at the Mill Run Theatre in Niles. She became interested in acting on high school and never went back to volleyball or basketball.
At the University of Illinois, she started as a theatre major and finished with a degree in English and speech education. Her passion was coaching debate and forensics. As a sophomore, she volunteered as an assistant speech coach at Champaign Central High School and became head coach as a junior and senior.
After graduation, she taught at Waukegan East for one year and Maine East for one year before moving to Downers Grove South.
"I found a home here," she said. "The district is super supportive in the arts. In the field of competitive arts, you have three aspects -- educational, artistic and competitive. Lots of times people try to focus on one, not three. I want to make them a bundle."
As in sports, Heiteen starts her students as freshmen, then promotes them to junior varsity, then varsity. "We still treat them like they are going through the levels. You don't know when they are 14 what they will be like at 18," she said.
She has 80 active students every year. She doesn't cut anyone. She finds tournaments that will meet their needs and skills depending on whatever level they are at. "We have super stars and also kids who know they won't be stars but are taking advantage of the opportunity to grow as performers and socially interact with other kids," she said.
There are many opportunities--forensics, debate, public speaking, comedy, acting, interpretation and radio broadcasting. As a teacher in freshman honors English, she finds students who are academically inclined and theatre driven. Like a basketball coach looking for a 6-foot-9 prospect, she combs the hallways for kids "who have that look and aren't involved in anything presently, kids who could find a home in the arts."
"What do I look for? The 'it' factor, a student who has poise and is articulate and has a voice, whether I agree with it or not, someone who can speak out, who wants to communicate. I'm looking for kids who want to take their voice and put it out as a communication and share it with the audience, outgoing personalities who want to relate to others, young kids who don't believe they have a voice."
When coaches look for basketball players, they look for youngsters who can run and jump. Heiteen looks for kids who can fit into 14 events, debate and theatre.
"Sometimes teachers are the first believers. We see something in a kid that they don't realize they have, a kid who has a special skill," she said. "There are a lot of opportunities for kids to find their niche. I'm looking for kids who want to expand their abilities, sometimes a kid you wouldn't expect."
Like the 5-foot-8 kid who wanted to play basketball but became a state champion in speech and now is an outstanding speech coach. Or the girl who was a self-proclaimed misfit as a freshman, clumsy and unfocused, but stayed with the program for four years and developed into a state champion.
"I don't know how a kid will develop," she said. "Another kid who became a national champion in poetry reading wanted to be on the drill team. I figured out a schedule so she could do both. She was just a tall and lovely woman who was nervous in front of people. We nurtured her to become what she could become, a great success. Like a football coach, you see potential in a kid and it's exciting to watch them blossom."