Mary Jordan Heil, a retired Accomack County school teacher known for her light-up-the-room smile and for inspiring generations of Eastern Shore students, died Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, after a battle with cancer. She was 80 and lived in Poplar Cove.
Heil is survived by her brother, Joseph Jordan, of Toledo, Ohio, and sister, Kathleen Diller, of Medford, New Jersey. She leaves behind her daughters, Martha Riordon Heil of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Emily Heil, of Washington, D.C.; her son, William Coston, of Hackensack, New Jersey; and granddaughters Mary May and Nicole Jean Riordon Heil of Los Alamos.
When Heil arrived in Onancock more than 40 years ago, little had prepared her for life on the Eastern Shore — a life that she would come to love. Growing up in Toledo, she wore a starchy Catholic school uniform; later, as a young secretary in Washington, D.C., she donned heels and gloves to attend fancy cocktail parties in Georgetown. But after she and her late husband, Nicholas Heil, settled in Poplar Cove, she often found herself in jeans and a flannel shirt, tending to a flock of 40,000 chickens on the family’s property. The unlikely country girl never complained about the pungent, ramshackle chicken houses, the broken-down tractor, or anything else, really. No matter what it was, she saw the good within it.
Heil was born in Buffalo, New York in 1940. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and a master’s degree from Old Dominion University. She taught in the Accomack County school system for more than 30 years, where she was known as an uncommonly kind and empathetic educator.
As a fifth grade teacher and later an instructor in the talented-and-gifted program, Heil filled her classrooms with fun. Children would paint flowers on the windows and pull wild costumes from the dress-up box of cast-off clothing that she collected. Though many people find middle-schoolers unbearable, she loved being around them and seeing their identities take shape. She loved to teach reading, helping many adults master language in her free time.
Heil was happiest when her home was filled with laughter. When her daughters were little, she threw birthday parties with candy-stuffed pinatas and cakes in the shape of cats. On Halloween, she hand-stitched bumble-bee and mosquito costumes. Later, she led troops of girls to the Dream roller rink and served tacos for endless slumber parties. In recent years, she delighted in making cupcakes — topped with pink frosting, always — with her beloved granddaughters.
For decades, Heil engaged in near-constant banter with her husband, Nicholas, the love of her life. They met on Capitol Hill in the mid-1960s. At the time, she was working for the House Judiciary Committee, and he was a lawyer for Congressman William Cahill. They married in 1970 and moved to the Eastern Shore eight years later, trading the intensity of politics for the peace of the marshes. Year after year, they strolled the beaches of Chincoteague and lovingly matched wits over the Sunday newspapers.
Heil welcomed hundreds of guests to Poplar Cove, inviting them to sit down at the round oak table in her kitchen. It was the hub of family life, where she served dinner every night and coffee so strong, people said it could stand up without a cup. She made visitors feel at home and took in all kinds of strays, from friends of friends to political volunteers to foreign exchange students. Always a good listener, she would grip people’s arms tightly as they spoke, making them feel that every word was important. During the holidays, she made sure everyone left with a heavy tin of homemade cookies.
Everyone will remember Heil’s signature laugh, warm and heartfelt. Her children joked that they could locate her at the grocery store just by listening for it — surely, she had found a friend in one of the aisles. Her laugh expressed her boundless optimism, her appreciation for the good and the goofy in each moment, in each person she shared it with.
The Heil family will hold a private service at their home in late November. They plan to invite extended family and friends to a celebration of Mary’s life next summer, or as soon as it is safe to gather.
Memory tributes may be shared with the family at www.williamsfuneralhomes.com.
Arrangements by the Williams-Onancock Funeral Home.