A near 50-year veteran of College life and a scholar of early American literature and culture, Heimert, students and colleagues say, is wholly traditionalist--one of the last, great defenders of Old Harvard.
Last week, the Eliot leader--the most senior master in the house system--announced in a letter that, after 23 years, he will step down from his post in June.
"You might say that it's the end of an era," says Acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry Rosovsky.
Heimert's retirement will mark turning points for both Eliot House, which has only had three masters in its entire history, and the College, for which Heimert is the last house master with a life-time appointment.
Heimert's unexpected decision came in a letter addressed to outgoing President Derek C. Bok. It was distributed to each resident of Eliot House last weekend.
"Many, indeed nearly all, our lasting friendships have been formed through Eliot House," Heimert wrote in the letter, speaking of his wife, Associate Master Arlene G. Heimert '59, and himself. "We have been delighted that so many alumni and alumnae have looked on the house as a place where they always remained welcome."
"But such joys cannot, I realize, be prolonged forever," Heimert wrote.
Since his appointment as Eliot Master in 1968, colleagues say, Heimert has worked to maintain University and scholarly traditions. He contributes to Eliot's 21-year-old "An Evening of Champions" benefit that donates proceeds to cancer research. He teaches a house seminar on Abraham Lincoln. And in the past few years, he has been a leading opponent of house randomization--a plan that many other masters have called crucial to ensuring undergraduate diversity.
"He stands for the preservation of traditions," says Donald Bacon '62, senior tutor of Eliot House.
Heimert's penchant for tradition occasionally sparks memorable comments: explaining the University's new alcohol policy to residents this fall, one house senior says, Heimert stood on a chair and bellowed, "those gutless cowards up in the Yard want to take away your booze."
Describing Heimert's academic work, Bacon says the Cabot professor of American Literature is "a scholar enraptured by his subjects," who include Lincoln, Jonathan Edwards and Herman Melville. Bacon says Heimert is a strong advocate of public service, calling him "radically committed to helping the underprivileged."
Life in Eliot
Although the spent his undergraduate years in Kirkland House, Heimert has been affiliated with Eliot since 1952, when he tutored there shortly before a three-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Korea and Japan.
In 1968, already a veteran tutor in the House, Heimert was appointed master by then-President Nathan M. Pusey '28.