About three hundred members of the Elon community gathered in the Sacred Space of Numen Lumen on Monday night to commemorate the life of Heidi Frontani, professor of geography.
Frontani, 50, died of a heart attack Feb. 26. Many people who knew Frontani chose not to think about the loss, and instead, about the way she lived.
They remembered her smile, her passion for Africa and her selflessness with students and faculty.
Amy Johnson, assistant professor of history, said she received a permanent position at Elon largely because of Frontani’s willingness to help.
“She helped me to navigate some of the things that I might want to do at various stages in my career,” Johnson said, trying to hold back tears. “Everything that’s good that’s happened to me at Elon has happened because of Dr. Frontani.”
When reflecting on her experiences with Frontani, Johnson recalls one salient moment.
In Johnson’s first or second year of teaching at Elon, she went into Frontani’s office and began crying because of all the pressures and struggles she was experiencing in the early stages of her teaching career.
“She pulled me into her office, and she listened to me,” Johnson said. “She said, ‘You know what, Amy? You’re going to be OK, and Elon is going to be OK.’ It doesn’t sound like much, but what she helped me to do was reframe the challenges that I was facing, and she did it so effortlessly. It was just one of those moments that really stuck out to me.”
If one word could best describe Frontani, it would likely be “passion” — and as anyone who worked with her knows, one of her biggest passions was Africa.
Frontani spent the last 18 years in the Department of History and Geography, serving as its chair for four years and holding countless other positions at Elon University.
During her 18 years, she focused on African entrepreneurship and innovation in hopes of breaking down common misconceptions about the continent. Frontani ran a blog about her work to create a database of hundreds of African leaders. She posted on her blog as recently as Feb. 20.
“We are a stronger university because of Heidi,” said Elon President Leo Lambert in an email announcing Frontani’s death. “The students she taught and mentored, and the values they carry into this world, are perhaps her greatest legacy.”
This semester, Frontani had been teaching COR 404: “Africans and African Development” along with LED 498: “Leadership Research.” She was also working on two books: one about the Rockefeller Foundation’s and Welcome Trust’s Health Sector Aid to Africa through World War II, and the other on outstanding African leaders.
Frontani also shared her passion of African studies with students outside of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Jeffrey Coker, director of the Elon Core Curriculum and associate professor of biology, said Frontani was one of the best COR 110: “The Global Experience” professors because of her dedication to increasing awareness of African success.
“Anybody that ever met Heidi would just be in awe of her passion for Africa, for her students, for teaching and she was always so genuine and offering her perspective,” Coker said. “She was always giving and contributing to the larger community.”
Senior Juliana Sierra Bedoya said her COR 110 class with Frontani still stands out to her.
“She always had a smile on her face, and you could really tell she loved what she did as a professor,” Bedoya said. “Whenever she talked about her experiences, you could see a light shine in her eyes. I really admire her, and I hope to be as wise as her one day.”
But some of Frontani’s most important contributions extended beyond the classroom.
“She is the most effective Periclean Scholars mentor that we’ve had and has mentored students to make really profound contributions,” said Charles Irons, associate professor of history and chair of the History and Geography Department.
“One of the common threads in Heidi’s work — in her scholarship, teaching and service — was her unfailingly constructive and hopefully outlook. ... She championed the students whom she mentored, winning them prestigious national and international awards. She poured her heart and soul into her Periclean Scholars cohort, which served Ghana and left a lasting legacy in the form of a clinic to serve the people of Kpoete. Hers was a beautiful life.”
While there is no one-size-fits-all model for grieving, University Chaplain Jan Fuller reminds those affected by loss to surround themselves with other people and begin the grieving process.
“We have had a lot of grief in our community,” Fuller said. “Human life is precious and fragile, and anything can happen at any time … Watch for students who are struggling and share some hugs.”
Johnson hopes all students, especially those who did not know Frontani, will appreciate the legacy Frontani has left for the Elon community.
“If you didn’t have the chance to be in her class or to be mentored by her, you really missed the opportunity to be deeply, deeply cared for,” Johnson said. “She really did care about every student individually, and I don’t know that anybody could replicate that.”
Gary Grumbach of Elon Local News contributed reporting.