By Amy Wenk
In the fall of 1948, Buckhead resident Miriam Heiskell, husband Jimmy and their three young children moved to Atlanta when Jimmy was transferred by his employer, the Coca-Cola Company.
Five days later, while the Heiskells settled at their new home on Peachtree Battle Circle, the family learned their oldest son, five-year-old Andy, had contracted polio.
“There was no serum, and people were frightened to death of the illness,” said Miriam, now 90 years old. “The first night after the diagnosis, the doctor told us Andy would likely not live through the night and that if he did live, he would probably never walk again.”
The grief-stricken family had no idea the tragedy would lead to the start of the Heiskell School (www.heiskell.net), a private, nondenominational Christian school on Northside Drive in Buckhead. This year, the school celebrates its 60th anniversary.
“Our whole life has been blessed of God in so many ways,” said Miriam, Heiskell School founder and director emeritus.
Andy survived that initial night and through extensive therapy at Emory Hospital, he began to walk and talk again.
“Then in May of 1949, the doctors told us that Andy’s recovery had been so miraculous that in the fall he would be able to go to school and enter first grade as a six-year-old,” said Miriam, who now has 23 great-grandchildren. “I was concerned about Andy’s ability to adapt to a normal school environment because he had been isolated from other children his age for more than eight months.”
Miriam, who earned a degree in early childhood education, decided in June, 1949 to invite 15 neighborhood children to the Heiskell house for summer learning. Jimmy paneled the garage and built another room under the porch for the school.
“After the summer went so well, the parents actually begged me to keep our little school open for their children and eventually their brothers and sisters,” Miriam said. “So I agreed to continue the school for just one more year, and then another year, and then another year.”
After 15 years, Jimmy saw Miriam’s commitment to education and built her facility at 3260 Northside Drive, where the school operates today.
“When I married, my only career ambition was to raise a wonderful Christian family,” said Miriam, who met Jimmy at the University of Tennessee. “Nothing else ever crossed my mind. Having a school was God’s idea, and I just followed his lead.”
For the first 21 years, the Heiskell School was a preschool. In 1970, first through sixth grades were added upon the request of parents.
Today, the school begins with two-year-olds and continues through the eighth grade. Around 360 students come from nearly 100 churches said Miriam, but are united by Christian beliefs.
“Our fundamental objective for 60 years has been that each child knows Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior,” said Miriam, who also served on the founding board of the Trinity School that began at Buckhead’s Trinity Presbyterian Church and now is located at 4301 Northside Parkway. “Our teachers model their own faith in Jesus Christ in their daily interaction with the children entrusted to their care. Our building block and foundation has always been the Word of God.”
In this pursuit, Heiskell students attend daily chapel. The 30 to 35 teachers integrate Biblical teachings into academic studies, stress character values like truthfulness and respect and instill leadership qualities. Patriotism and family honor are also emphasized in classroom.
“We are teaching as Jesus would teach,” said Miriam, a long-time member of Peachtree Presbyterian Church. “We truly believe these hands have been given to us by Jesus.”
She said a Heiskell education trains youth to be future Christian leaders.
“With so much confusion, chaos and mixed messages bombarding our children daily, sometimes the future seems rather bleak” said Amanda and David Saltin, parents of Heiskell graduate Ariel, in a testimonial. “These students not only have the leadership abilities to make a difference in our world … they have tremendous faith in God for directing the purpose of their lives. Their Heiskell experience has given them the tools to move forward and meet the challenges ahead, not just part of the way but all the way.”
The Heiskell family remains involved. Miriam’s daughter Cyndie became school director in 2001, and her son Jim serves as developmental director and teaches junior high math. One of her grandsons is a teacher, and of course, Miriam continues to spread her influence.
“She is the driving force behind this school,” said Ray Leatherman, the school’s chaplain for more than 30 years. “It’s not a job. It’s a ministry.”
As for Andy, he went on to run track and cross country at Westminster School, where he earned the school’s first state title in the 60s. Today, he is executive vice president of a large insurance company in New York City.
“The doctors said he would never walk or talk again, but God had a different plan, a plan to work a miracle in Andy’s life,” Miriam said. “What a blessing it has been.”