Heather Wilson’s name conjures up colorful memories from those who knew her. Robin Weiss thinks of her trademark white pearls. George Milne remembers her red Cabriolet convertible. Julie Plevin remembers her pink fingernails, always perfectly manicured.
Wilson was also an inspiration to her students, neighbors and swimmers she coached, all the while fighting kidney disease and cancer with a smile on her face and without a complaint.
At the age of 33, Wilson died last Thursday at her parents’ home in Avenel, after a long battle with multiple illnesses.
“She gave to everybody, but they gave back to her as well,” said Renee Wilson, Heather’s mother. “She just loved her kids — that was her life, that and her family.”
WILSON’S PASSING was especially mourned at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase, where she was a reading teacher, and the River Falls neighborhood where she grew up and was a devoted swimmer and coach at the community pool.
“She was everybody’s sweetheart,” said George Milne, a River Falls resident whose daughter Jessica coached with Wilson. “Here in the neighborhood, she’s made a big difference.”
Students at Rock Creek Forest were told of her passing on Friday.
“Everybody was crying, even the boys,” said Willa Isikoff, a Rock Creek Forest 5th-grader. “She always made learning fun, and when you were sad, she always made you feel better.”
Willa and her mother Lisa Stein recalled a time when Willa was a 2nd-grader, and some students in her class made fun of her for being short. Wilson overheard them, and asked Willa to come over and sit in her lap. Several of the students who teased Willa asked if they could sit in her lap, and Wilson told them no, only Willa was little enough.
“She saw her work with the children as giving her life meaning,” said Sandy Walker, principal at Rock Creek Forest, where Wilson’s life will be celebrated this Monday. “She had a way of making a connection with kids; the rapport she had with students was very special.”
Wilson’s neighbors felt the same way. Robin Weiss, who lived two doors down from the Wilsons, said, “She had a way of making everybody feel very, very special and feel good about themselves.”
HEATHER WILSON ATTENDED the Holton-Arms School, where she was president of the Orchesis Dance Club. “She was quite an accomplished dancer; she’d been dancing all her life,” said Renee Wilson. After graduating from Holton in 1988, she attended Middlebury College in Vermont.
Wilson’s neighborhood remembers her devotion to the River Falls swimming pool, where she was a fixture for more than 25 years.
Melissa Dorman Attilio coached with Wilson at River Falls for four years.
“We’ve said for years, when you think of River Falls, you think of Heather,” Attilio said. “She’d been part of it since she was 8-and-under.”
From the age of 18, Wilson coached the River Falls swim team, and continued doing so through last summer.
“She was just a wonderful person, always had a smile on her face,” said Cheryl Kemp, a River Falls resident whose children were part of the swim team. “I really doubt my children will meet someone like her again. She was that sweet.”
WILSON WAS BORN WITH an immunological deficiency so rare that she was written about in several medical journals, Renee Wilson said. During Heather’s senior year at Middlebury, her kidney failed. She had to begin dialysis, making two-hour round trips to Burlington, Vt. three times a week. “She never complained,” said Renee Wilson.
Heather didn’t let the complications slow her down, and graduated from Middlebury in 1992 after just three-and-a-half years.
During Christmas 1995, Heather Wilson received a liver transplant, but turned out to be infected, and for several months Heather struggled for her life. She recovered, but was then diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, but she continued teaching and coaching through all the stages of her cancer treatment.
“I started coaching with her 17 years ago,” said Greg York, coach at River Falls. “When I first was here, she had kidney problems, and she fought through them.”
Last summer, as Wilson’s cancer advanced, she came to the pool an hour after intensive cancer treatment. “She said, ‘What else am I going to do, go home and feel sorry for myself? … This is what I do,” York recalled.
“Swimmers were aware,” said Kemp “She’d had health conditions for many years, so she was sometimes not feeling well yet continued to be quite a role model.”
“Seeing her fight cancer really inspired the swimmers,” said Melissa Dorman Attilio, her friend and fellow coach. “She was the spirit of the team.”
Julie Plevin, now a junior at Whitman, is one of the swimmers Wilson coached for years.
“One thing I thought was really cool about her was even this past summer when she was really sick, she always had her nails perfectly painted pink and manicured,” said Plevin.
AS A COACH, Wilson included all swimmers, regardless of their meet performances or personal best times, said Plevin.
“She didn’t care how good a swimmer you were; she just cared about your personality. … I think that’s a big part of River Falls tradition.”
“She would just go put her arm around a swimmer after she’d swum an event,” Kemp said.
River Falls swimmers remembered her even after “graduating” from the swim team. “As girls got older, they would call her and ask her for advice,” said neighbor Bonnie Perkins.
Milne described a visual image he had of Wilson, who had a red Cabriolet convertible as a teenager and loved to drive it to the River Falls meets. She also loved to drive River Falls swimmers in the convertible in the neighborhood’s annual Fourth of July parade.
Neighbor Robin Weiss said Wilson was the most influential person in the life of her daughter, Courtney Weiss Carroll. “She inspired her into coaching and teaching, and how to build upon children’s strengths… and always reinforce the goodness in people,” Weiss said.
HEATHER WILSON IS survived by her parents, Walt and Renee Wilson, and her brother Craig Wilson.
Visiting hours will be held at Joseph Gawler’s Sons, 5130 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. on Thursday 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., and Friday 5-7 p.m.
A memorial service will be held at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac Village on Saturday, Dec. 20 at 1 p.m. Guests at the service are asked to carpool, as parking space will be limited.