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An artist, archivist, and dedicated alumna leaves her mark on Peabody

From organizing a prized music collection to beautifying a prominent hallway, four-time Peabody alumna Wilda Heiss' service and philanthropy make an impact across the Conservatory
Posted March 8, 2017
Students enjoy an exhibit of photos that highlight alumni from Peabody's current reunion years. Students enjoy an exhibit of photos that highlight alumni from Peabody's current reunion years.

Ever since Wilda Heiss enrolled at Peabody in 1957, music — and the Conservatory — have been threads running through her life story. The recipient of four Peabody degrees (master of music, artist diploma, bachelor of music, and teacher's certificate) Heiss enjoyed a successful career as a professional flutist and later as a performing arts examiner then music specialist for the Library of Congress. After retiring from that post in 2005, however, she returned to Peabody and has served in at least as many volunteer and philanthropic roles as she has degrees from her alma mater.

Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein, Wilda Heiss, Matthew Rupcich

"It's appreciation," Heiss says of her decision to devote countless hours and generous financial support to Peabody, for which she received a 2015 Johns Hopkins University Alumni Association Heritage Award.

"It was the time I spent here that made it possible for me to do what I did after I left here. I really appreciated the exposure I got, the learning that I got. Music has been a way of connecting the dots in my journey through life."

Heiss' Peabody training helped her secure the principal flute position with the Birmingham, Alabama, Symphony Orchestra for a decade before she joined the Library of Congress staff in 1977. Her experience working in Performing Arts Section of the Copyright Office and later in the Acquisition and Processing Section of the Music Division were particularly beneficial to Peabody's Arthur Friedheim Library and Archives. Heiss volunteered to help organize items donated to Peabody's Charlie Byrd Collection, a task that required combing through dozens of boxes of the noted jazz guitarist's scores and sheet music and devising a system to make the documents accessible for researchers.

"It's very detailed work and requires knowhow: collections can be organized in a variety of ways, but making materials and documents findable for patrons is essential," says Bozena Jedrzejczak Brown, a specialist in the Friedheim Library.

"Keeping up with new developments in the world of archival work is not only welcome but necessary for archivists in a fast-changing environment. Wilda's financial contributions made that possible for us more than once."
Bozena Jedrzejczak Brown, a specialist in the Friedheim Library

Along with her time, Heiss also gave funds to help Peabody Archives attend professional conferences and meetings such as in 2011, when a Peabody archivist traveled to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference for advanced training in preserving, cataloguing, and managing records.

"Keeping up with new developments in the world of archival work is not only welcome but necessary for archivists in a fast-changing environment," Brown says. "Wilda's financial contributions made that possible for us more than once."

An influential leader of the Peabody alumni community, Heiss sat on the Society of Peabody Alumni's executive committee for several years and was the key organizer for 50-year reunions in 2011, 2013, and 2015. She also made a gift to endow a permanent exhibit that will rotate its photos to highlight alumni from Peabody's current reunion years. The exhibit, located in a sloping hallway leading to the Cohen-Davison Family Theatre, draws from archives chronicling Peabody's 150 years in its present building.

The project even gave Heiss a chance to dust off the drafting skills she'd gained during her first job after high school at Baltimore Gas and Electric Company; she got out her architectural scale, T-square, and drawing board and created a schematic drawing that displays her calculations of how many photos would fit on the walls, and how to best use the unusually angled space so as to keep each grouping of photos at the eye level of viewers walking through the corridor.

"I saw that empty, plain corridor, and said, 'let's do something with this hall,'" Heiss remembers. "I hope these photographs bring back great memories to the alumni who visit and return for reunions. They can also remind current Peabody students of the legacy they have become a part of."