WATERVILLE — When Karen Heck came to the city 42 years ago to study government at Colby College, she didn’t imagine that one day she’d be mayor.

But her experiences here, a growing love of central Maine and a passion for Waterville and its people landed her where she is today.

Three days into her position as mayor, Heck, 59, said she doesn’t like to hear people bemoan how the city is now compared to what it used to be.

“The things that made Waterville great are still here,” she said in her office at City Hall. “Now, I’m happy to be promoting this town as the creative and culturally rich, vibrant community it is. There’s a ton of young energy and talent that we have the opportunity to tap, and that is what’s going to make Waterville the town that I remember when I came here in the 70s.”

“The things that made Waterville great are still here,” she said in her office at City Hall. “Now, I’m happy to be promoting this town as the creative and culturally rich, vibrant community it is. There’s a ton of young energy and talent that we have the opportunity to tap, and that is what’s going to make Waterville the town that I remember when I came here in the 70s.”

Heck urged people to talk up Waterville wherever they go, to recruit people to live, work and shop here. That will help expand the tax base, she said.

“It’s easy to shop online, it’s easy to go to Staples, but SBS Carbon Copy and Barrels (where she volunteers) and the Paragon Shop and Sign of the Sun and Jorgensen’s and Selah Tea Cafe — the owners of those businesses live here, they spend their money here. People say Waterville’s not what it used to be; it’s our responsibility to make sure that these people trying to bring it back have our support — and support means our money.”

Heck, a tall, slender woman with short blond hair, was casually dressed in flannel-lined shoes, a pink sweater and brown corduroys as she entered her office Friday carrying a box of personal items.

The first thing she did was hang a framed photograph on the wall next to her desk. It was taken years ago, when she retired from her job at Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, where she was deputy director of operations from 1979 to 1996.

“I love this,” she said. “It’s a view out my window of all the South End rooftops.”

At her desk overlooking snowy Castonguay Square, Heck unrolled a poster depicting Raggedy Ann and Andy and the words “Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.” She said she’d hang it in an inconspicuous place, mostly for her eyes only.

“It’s a reminder,” she said.

Ambitious goals

Heck has ambitious goals for her mayorship. In her inauguration speech Tuesday night she cited a number of things she wants to do, including revitalizing the airport, lowering energy costs and fixing roads. But she stressed that she cannot do it alone and encouraged people to get involved.

Heck said she would love to see people focus on reducing energy costs in the city. She also hopes they will support the efforts of Sustain Mid-Maine and discussions about having a biomass plant in the city.

She said there are many good ideas other than a proposed natural gas pipeline that do not need a tax break to succeed.

“That takes money away from the town. The profits of a pipeline won’t be accruing in this town. It’s not that I don’t think natural gas is important as part of the mix, but I do have to question the business plan and viability that depends on a (tax break) in order for us to succeed.”

Heck said she will be available to people in her office mostly on Mondays and Fridays when she is not working in Augusta as senior program officer of the Bingham Program. But anyone who feels uncomfortable coming to City Hall will find her close by, she said

“Mostly, I want to be out in the community. I want to know what people think, but they don’t have to come here to tell me.”

Heck plans to host information meetings at Waterville Public Library with City Manager Michael Roy and Library Director Sarah Sugden. She said she wants residents to understand why, for instance, the tax rate was increased and some roads have not been fixed.

“The first place to start, I think, is the budget process because everyone’s got their own pet projects or pet peeves,” she said. “I think it’s important to note that Waterville’s assessment is lower than the surrounding towns, so that makes our mill rate higher. We could have a 100 percent valuation and lower the mill rate.”

She also will host a meet-and-greet session 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 4 at Senior Spectrum’s Muskie Center on Gold Street.

Child development affects economy

Intertwined with Heck’s interest in seeing Waterville thrive is her deep passion to ensure that young children have proper nutrition and nurturing, which is critical to their success later in life.

After all, she said in her inauguration speech Tuesday, “Young people in this town are our future and it’s in our self-interest to do all we can to see that they are successful.”

As part of her job at the Bingham Program, Heck manages grants devoted to fostering community health. She said most brain development occurs in children from birth to three and that is when they need healthy interactions with adults. Domestic violence, neglect, inconsistent care, and other problems interfere with development, she said.

“If people could understand that our economic success is tied to the way we foster the brain development of children, we wouldn’t be recommending cuts in Head Start and subsidies in child care. We would be working as hard as we could to increase the funding that has the greatest return on our investment.”

Heck said she is proud that Waterville is home to Educare Central Maine, a center for early childhood development.

“I’m thrilled that in this city we have the opportunity to really show people what a commitment to early quality care and education can do.”

Heck is co-creator of the nonprofit organization Hardy Girls, Healthy Women. She also supports efforts to stop domestic violence against women and children.

Active, engaged upbringing

Her passion and commitment to causes started to develop when she was a child growing up in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., with sisters Janet and Diane.

Her father, Gus, and mother, June, were heavily involved in community affairs.

“My mother was a volunteer and my father was on the school board and Chamber of Commerce. They were always active and engaged. They were the youth leaders at our church and even though they were more conservative than I — they were Republicans — there was a sense of social justice that I grew up with.”

Because she only had sisters, her father did not dole out chores based on gender.

“We had to cut the grass and we did the dishes. He took us to football games and taught us to throw a baseball. Both of my parents impressed on us the importance of education and the fact that we could make a difference.”

Heck’s father, who died in 1996, was an executive at Bethlehem Steel; her mother, now of Florida, was a full-time mother and community volunteer. Her sister Janet, a retired corporate lawyer and chief executive officer of an energy company, lives in Colorado; Diane, retired vice president of human resources for Cummins Engine, is a personal trainer living in Indiana.

Heck’s father, who died in 1996, was an executive at Bethlehem Steel; her mother, now of Florida, was a full-time mother and community volunteer. Her sister Janet, a retired corporate lawyer and chief executive officer of an energy company, lives in Colorado; Diane, retired vice president of human resources for Cummins Engine, is a personal trainer living in Indiana.

Heck graduated from Orchard Park High School in 1970 (she ran for treasurer of her junior-senior class and won; she tried out for cheerleading but didn’t make it, she said) and swam competitively during the summer.

Heck earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Colby College. While she was at Colby, a sociology course in feminist thinking changed her life.

“That, and I worked at (the late former congressman) Jack Kemp’s office in Washington and met a woman named Louise Buchanan who was from the deep south — Mississippi. We marched in civil rights marches, knew all the civil rights leaders. She was the only other liberal in Jack’s office. We sort of bonded and she was my mentor in all things involving social justice.”

Heck ultimately decided she was unhappy in Washington and returned to Maine. She went to the University of Maine, earned a master’s degree in human development, and started work at Kennebec Valley Community Action Program.

She met her partner, Bruce Olson, 57, at a birthday party in 1996.

Olson owns Blue Wave, a dance studio in Waterville; is co-owner of Tree Spirits, an Oakland company that makes sparkling wines and distilled spirits from locally grown apples and maple syrup; manages The Center in downtown Waterville; and works for Baseline U.S., a company that helps retail businesses, hospitals and other entities become more energy efficient.

Heck and Olson live on Pleasant Street with two cats, Squirrel and Coco.

Amy Calder — 861-9247