“Jesus loves you and so do I.” After more than half a century, that still is a signature saying for Carl Heath, a familiar face and father figure in the East Valley who influenced the lives of hundreds of students at Mesa High School and those he’s prayed with and helped.
In fact, one may wonder who the elderly man is sitting in the back booth at a Mesa Denny’s restaurant wearing the Arizona Cardinals cap, greeting and hugging people without reservation, and asking them: “If I asked you right now where Jesus is, what would you say?”
Tucked inside Heath’s shirt pocket are stickers in the shape of a heart that he passes out to the people he meets, including the children and waitresses at the restaurant. The stickers are a reminder for him that he had five heart bypasses eight years ago, and he gives them to others to symbolize a “new heart.”
He also passes out small silver crosses that say, “Faith Moves Mountains,” and small cards containing the poem “The Cross.”
From 1950 to 1975, Heath served as a coach, a counselor and American history teacher at Mesa High after graduating from Arizona State College (now Arizona State University) following his years of service with the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific during World War II.
His years with the Navy were the catalyst and foundation for serving and helping people. Beginning with students at Mesa High in the years that followed, he set an example for and shaped their lives through love, respect and character building.
Today, at the age of 87, nearly 40 years after his retirement from education, he remains a resident of Mesa, still drives (a white Chevy Silverado pickup truck with more than 250,000 miles on it) to nursing homes, senior citizens centers and group homes and continues to be a father figure to many.
Sharp in mind and spirit, he still is an active member in the First United Methodist Church in Mesa and also helps with the administration of Sunshine Acres Children’s Home in east Mesa, a facility for homeless children where Heath has held chapel and prayer meetings and served on the home’s board for nearly 60 years, since the home opened in 1953.
“Carl Heath is a true friend,” said Carol Whitworth, president of the Sunshine Acres Children’s Home. “He’s such a positive person. He’s been a longtime friend of the home and has a way with children and people. He’s a real inspiration and has been a father figure to many. We appreciate him and many others still do, too.”
And although Heath plans to take it easy today on Father’s Day by spending it with his wife, Mary, his three children — daughter Carla Lane, sons Randal and Johnny Heath — and three grandchildren, he said others will drop by for a visit.
The visits through the years are a steady reminder of the legacy he has built as a father figure, evidenced in the region as many of his former students are leaders in the community today — Brent Berge of Bell Ford in Phoenix, Danny Ikeda, family namesake for the Ikeda Theater at Mesa Center for the Arts, former state legislator Rusty Bowers and John Schaumburg, a pastor at a Lutheran church in the Valley, just to name a few.
At national and international religious conferences, Heath has prayed with thousands — helping people from all walks of life to get to better know Christ.
“Nothing makes me happier than to see lives changed,” Heath said. “It’s great that students still remember me. A lot of the ‘kids’ still come by to see me. I love it. I really enjoy their visits and seeing everyone stop by, especially around the holidays.”
From cotton fields to war
Heath came from humble beginnings.
His family blew in to Arizona from Oklahoma on the winds of the Dust Bowl in the wake of the Great Depression in 1939.
The family settled in Peoria where he worked in the cotton fields before and after school as a young boy. In those days, he made 75 cents per 100 batches or burrs of pure cotton he picked, a lot of money in those days. He said it often took him three-fourths of a day to pick 100 batches of cotton and later worked his way up to picking 200 burs of cotton a day, although he admits that his mother was “the best cotton picker of’em all.”
He took a bath in an irrigation ditch and often slept outside under a mesquite tree and in a tent. That was during a time when Grand Avenue was the only paved road heading west out of the Valley.
Heath stood out his first day of school, wearing bibbed overalls, a denim shirt and high-topped shoes. The clothes were a telltale wardrobe of where he came from.
“When the kids saw me in school, they said, ‘Hey, look at the little Okie,’” Heath said. The name stuck.”
But it wasn’t until after he graduated from Peoria High School in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy that he really reached a crossroads.
Serving as a motor machinist on an auxiliary mine sweeper, the USS Constant from 1943 to 1945, Heath was a First Loader of a 3-inch, 50-caliber deck gun in the south Pacific on an LCT (landing tank craft), having misgivings about his actions.
“Whenever I fired one off, I always thought, ‘God, I hope that doesn’t hit somebody,’” he said.
Later on, when his crew was on the island of New Caledonia, Heath underwent a transformation, beginning to find peace in a time of war.
“I made my way to a local cemetery, sat on a tombstone and cried my eyes out,” Heath said. “I said, ‘If I make it out of this alive, I will help people the rest of my life.’ I guess that’s what made me decide to become a schoolteacher.”
Setting an example, building character
Even after Heath first became a teacher in 1950, he continued to work in the cotton fields in Peoria for another two summers to supplement his early teaching salary of $1,800 a year.
His faith was strengthened by the father of one of his players who noticed how unhappy he looked after a game one evening.
Heath admitted that he was unhappy, and the man then asked him the question: “If I asked you where Jesus was right now, what would you say?” Heath told him that Jesus was at the right hand of God, but the player’s dad was quick to remind him that you also have to pull Jesus down to talk to him. Heath went home that night and prayed with his wife and children — and he has remained steadfast in his faith since.
It doesn’t seem to really bother Heath that none of his Mesa High basketball teams won a state championship with him as head coach, but in 1963 and ‘64, he led the Jackrabbits to 22-2 and 15-4 records, respectively.
Heath doesn’t know his won-loss record during his years as the head basketball coach for the Jackrabbits right off, but he estimates that he won 75 percent of his games.
He still has copies of The Superstition, Mesa High’s yearbooks during his years at the school, and some scrapbooks containing letters from his players presented to him at various team reunions, a testament to his career and influence.
In a letter written for the 40th anniversary of the 1964 season on Oct. 30, 2004, former player Denny Hunt, who now is a doctor, said, “The most memorable thing that has stayed with me about Coach Heath these past years is the character building he instilled in us.”
Steve Skinner, who also played on the 1964 team, said in a letter to Heath: “Ten young men from the Class of 1964 have successfully moved through life — and continue to be solid fathers, husbands and citizens in the communities where they live and serve. You deserve credit for that.”
To which Heath said, “I wanted to set an example. “The one thing I’ve learned from people is love.”
“I’m just glad that I found peace and happiness early in life with Jesus so I can share it with my kids and grandkids and other people,” Heath added. “I believe those who find it early in life should share it with other people. Jesus is so far away for some.”
But the love Jesus represents is brought closer as this 87-year-old dad, grand-dad, and father figure to so many continues to live his faith, hugging those he meets and greeting them with: “Jesus loves you, and so do I.”
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