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Solon Springs mourns champion, friend

James Heim of Solon Springs is caught on camera during an annual trip to Mexico. Heim, who passed away last month, was a champion of Upper St. Croix Lake, the watershed, educational programs, the Solon Springs Volunteer Fire Department and more. Those who knew him called him "irreplaceable." Submitted photo 1 / 3
The Friends of the St. Croix Headwaters group pose with the Canoes on Wheels trailer about eight years ago. They are, left to right, Susan Peterson, Judy Aspling, Joanne Zosel, Jim Heim, John Cutlas, an unidentified member and Lynn Zimek. Submitted photo.2 / 3
Jim Heim, back row right, stands for a picture with members of the Solon Springs Volunteer Fire Department in 2017. Submitted photo.3 / 3

James Heim was a champion of healthy lakes and rivers, the driving force behind bringing order to the Solon Springs Fire Commission, an advocate for the downtrodden, a Lion, a mentor, a friend.

"He was a great example of what one dedicated person can do to help change their community and perhaps the world," said his wife, Patricia Pearson.

For a retiree, the Solon Springs man wore a lot of hats.

"He was going to meetings every day," said Joanne Zosel, math teacher at Solon Springs High School. "Sometimes twice, three times a day."

Armed with information, diplomacy, a warm heart and a broad view, Heim was able to effect change.

"He made ripples that people maybe don't even realize," said Pamela Toshner, a lake biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

His death last month at 89 left those who knew him at a loss.

"I thought Jim would be there forever," Zosel said. "He's irreplaceable."

He worked with local students on environmental projects, secured items like waders and books for class projects.

"The kids are devastated," Zosel said. "A lot of them have worked with him, volunteered at the landing with him."

The boots he left can't be filled by just one person, said Solon Springs Fire Chief Jonathon Brostowitz.

"He's missed by every business, every facet of the Solon Springs community," said Charlie Shaw, a member of the Solon Springs Fire Commission.

"He was like family," Brostowitz said.

Heim's environmental work encompassed water testing, combating invasive species and shoreline erosion, watershed tours, holding scripted pontoon rides to spread awareness of the health of the lake and more.

In addition to local organizations like the Upper St. Croix Lake Association and Friends of the St. Croix Headwaters, Heim's reach extended to county and state organizations. Toshner said he was instrumental in streamlining the grant process for the Clean Boats, Clean Waters invasive species monitoring program and making it non-competitive.

"He partnered with people to help make it easier to manage lakes," Toshner said. "He looked beyond his back yard to keep our lakes healthy. He connected with people to connect them to the broader watershed."

Heim's boots were firmly on the ground. He ferried students back and forth by pontoon boat during efforts to slow the spread of yellow flag iris. He trudged out in the rain with Zosel to set traps baited with cat food to catch and identify crayfish species inhabiting Upper St. Croix Lake. He initiated the Canoes on Wheels program to get young people out onto the watershed and tested lake water monthly for nearly three decades.

"Our lakes and rivers are better off because of his efforts, not just in Northwest Wisconsin but statewide," Toshner said.

The Solon Springs Volunteer Fire Department was another passion of Heim's.

"Fire service was always critically important to him," Pearson said.

A retired deputy chief with the Duluth Fire Department, Heim brought a deep well of knowledge to the commission. In Solon Springs, he helped push for new equipment, energy-efficient lighting and more with the facts to back it up.

"The months he was not in Mexico he attended every village board and most committee meetings," said Village Board President Mike Blaylock. "He truly will be missed by our community."

His efforts crossed state borders. Heim helped initiate firefighter certification in Minnesota and worked for the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association and Minnesota State Certification for many years. He also did site visits for certification around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Nova Scotia, Calgary and many areas in the United States.

Last week, the Solon Springs Village Board approved a memorial bench for Heim at the boat landing near the St. Croix Inn.

"His passing was a huge loss to our community," said village clerk Kathy Burger. "He was a great, diplomatic person that will be so missed."

Brostowitz used to talk to Heim every other day on the phone. When the retiree started using a smartphone, that added more calls.

"He would butt-dial me all the time," Brostowitz said. "I haven't had a butt dial since Dec. 6."

A member of the Solon Springs Lions, Heim was one of the first to volunteer for a project, said club secretary Doug Nagle. Heim coordinated their swimming lesson program each summer, organized concessions and helped with annual vision screening at Solon Springs School.

"For 20 years he made popcorn for all the concerts at Lucius Woods," Pearson said.

He also served on the board for the Women's Building of Duluth for two decades.

Heim had a memorable laugh and a great sense of humor, Brostowitz said. And he inspired others to take up public service.

"When I first met him, I looked up to him. I wanted to be like him," said Brostowitz, a village of Solon Springs trustee.

"He was the one who urged me to run for town supervisor," Nagle said.

Brostowitz hopes Heim's work will be taken up by new hands.

"How can we be like him and help the community we live in?" the fire chief asked.

Zosel plans to follow Heim's example.

"I'll retire soon," she said. "I will do some of the things on this list. He has impressed upon me that we have one earth, one chance."

A behind-the-scenes guy, pictures of Heim were hard to find.

"No one ever gave him an award," Brostowitz said. "He wasn't the grand marshal or anything. He could have been."

"He would have refused," Shaw said.

The ripples he made will be felt for years to come, they said.

"He loved everything he did and never needed, nor wanted, recognition," Pearson said. "He did it because he was passionate about the issues and believed what he was doing was important to help create a better world for all of us."