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Sharon Heelis to Retire After Nearly 40 Years as a Secretary for the Department of Art

After years of helping students achieve their goals, Heelis looks forward to continuing her own education

Department Secretary Sharon Heelis will retire this year after working for the Art Department for nearly 40 years — longer, if you count her time as a student employee. She remembers such momentous milestones as the first computer in the office (“My typewriter was the printer, so when I printed it sounded like a machine gun”), the first fax machine (“We stood and watched as the message printed out from a roll of paper”) and the first copy machine (“It gave us oily paper, it was expensive and the copies weren’t very good”). Fortunately, Heelis said, technology has come a long way since then.

Heelis began her decades-long career in the department in December of 1979, after the Barbizon Manufacturing Company — where she had worked for several years before and after serving a mission in Chile for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — announced they were closing. She had been an on-again, off-again student for seven years as she worked and saved money to put herself through school, though she had not yet settled on a major.

At first, Heelis worked part-time as a student secretary — typing, preparing syllabi and making copies for faculty with a mimeograph machine. Just six months later, Heelis applied for and was accepted to the full-time gallery secretary position, where she helped care for the university’s art collection prior to the opening of the Museum of Art (MOA) in 1993. The timing was fortunate for Heelis, whose father died suddenly one year into her new job. The oldest of six children, Heelis was able to support herself and ease the pressure on her mother, who was still caring for three children at their home in Payson.

It would be seven years before Heelis started taking classes again. In 1987, she became the department secretary in addition to gallery secretary. The director of the advisement center suggested she work toward a degree, so she did. Influenced by a colleague in the gallery who was studying art history as a graduate student, Heelis elected to study art history as well. Heelis noted that one of the best perks of working for BYU is the opportunity to take university courses for free, which she did for 10 years, taking one course each semester, until graduating in 1997. The culmination of her studies was participating in a study abroad to Italy and Spain with department faculty, where she got to see paintings she had previously viewed only in slide form. “I had worked hard, then to be able to go to Europe and see the paintings in true life was just absolutely marvelous,” Heelis recalled.

Due to other demands on her time, Heelis has not taken any courses since earning her degree, but she has several lined up for retirement — including book binding, flower arranging, flat pattern design, sewing “and anything else that takes my fancy.”

Department Chair Gary Barton, who has worked closely with Heelis in his role over the last six years, noted the significant impact Heelis has had on the students, faculty and staff of the department. “Throughout her work day, Sharon is frequently being asked to accommodate requests, answer questions and complete new tasks,” Barton said. “Often there are disruptions to her workflow, and at times, a pressure and urgency associated with the completion of her assignments. With all of this, she is professional, patient and good-natured.”

Interacting with students and helping them achieve their goals is one of Heelis’ favorite aspects of her job. “There is a certain amount of satisfaction when you see a student graduate, and you realize that maybe you had a tiny hand in helping them graduate,” Heelis said.

In her spare time, Heelis enjoys basket weaving and various forms of needle crafting. In addition to her longtime passion for knitting, she has picked up tatting and is currently learning how to bobbin lace.   Looking forward to retirement, Heelis said, “I think I’m just going to get used to not having the clock run my life and just take it one day at a time.”