Getting Personal: Donnie Heitler
Each week, we offer an email Q&A with a local personality. Today, Melissa Merli chats with 77-year-old Urbana resident Donnie Heitler, a jazz pianist who has regular gigs at The Great Impasta in Urbana and the two Minneci's restaurants in Champaign. On Thursday, he will receive the 2013 Ace Award for lifetime achievement from 40 North 88 West, the Champaign County Arts, Culture and Entertainment Council.
What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?
I will say it will vary from 7 o'clock to 9 o'clock. What I do is very mundane. I get up and fix a pot of coffee and listen to morning radio, whatever it may be. I like to listen to NPR and to the local stations, too.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?
Oh, that's like what's your favorite tune? I think my greatest achievement is when someone lets you know they enjoyed what you did. You can take that to New York or The Iron Post or The Great Impasta, wherever. I just feel a sense of appreciation when somebody comes up to me and says, "We had a wonderful time here tonight and really enjoyed your music."
What do you regard as your most treasured possession?
The piano is certainly right up there. Music has just been wonderful in every imaginable way. Music for sure. But I think equally important is family and friendships. They're just as important as what you do or have.
Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?
Indulging in foods that I'm not supposed to eat.
What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?
I'm reading a mystery novel. It's a whodunit. It's hard to say what my favorite is. "Anna Karenina"? "The Brothers Karamazov"? I always liked Thomas Wolfe's writing. His writing is sheer prose. All of it. It's just beautiful. I would say Thomas Wolfe is right up there.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
Oh, boy, that's a good question. There are any number of places that would rank equally in my curiosity. All the great cities of Europe. And who wouldn't want to go to Singapore? China? Japan? I would love to return to New York. I have a soft spot for New York. People who rap New York don't know. There are a lot of wonderful people in New York.
Tell me about your favorite pet.
I don't own pets. All of my family who had pets — I got along with them. Do I have a favorite? Not really. They were all great in their own way.
What's your favorite sports team?
Football — the Bears. Baseball — the Cubs. Basketball — the Chicago Bulls. I like the Blackhawks, but I don't understand hockey. I've been swept up by Blackhawk mania, though.
What would you order for your last meal?
I'm going to have a good appetite that night, so here we go: We're going to start off — we might be overladen with lobster on this, but we don't care — with Bookbinders Soup. Let's follow that with a nice salad of hearts of palm, avocado and cracked crab meat on butter lettuce, with lemon-balsamic vinaigrette. For an appetizer, smoked trout with a mild horseradish sauce. For a main course, I'll have surf and turf: lobster Thermidor and a big New York steak. Along with that, I want a side order of brown rice, snow peas and creamed cauliflower. For dessert, I'll have two. I'll have meringue with fresh fruit and a chocolate mousse. I would like some espresso, too. For wine, I want a dry wine — Le Mans Chez from a village in France. With the steak, I would like Chateau Lafite Rothschild, vintage 1970. For champagne, Perrier-Jout.
If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?
At least somebody as lucky as me. If I came back just the way I am, I'd be a happy camper. I've made a lot of mistakes. Had some good times. I'll take it. Life's great.
Who are your favorite musicians and why?
For what they have to offer, I love a lot of them. I don't want to leave out any of my favorite musicians. I have favorites that nobody knows about. I had a great friendship with George Shearing, so I have to include him. He was a really good musician, so I wouldn't mind calling him a favorite.
What's the happiest memory of your life?
Oh, boy. When you're 77 years old, the happiest memory is feeling well when you awaken. We really take it for granted. Having gone into dialysis, I have come to appreciate that more.
If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?
If I'm going to serve that last meal I would increase that quantity for the three. A lot of people come to mind but no three in particular. I don't want to limit it to three people.
Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?
Art Tatum. He set new standards for piano playing.
What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?
I don't like phony people. I don't like it if I ever behave in a way I shouldn't and I realize it. I do pay dues for it. I think we all do. It's called living and learning.
What's your best piece of advice?
Never marry your drinking buddy.
What was your first job, and how much did you make an hour?
My first job was a good job. My first job was at MacMurray College in Jacksonville as a seventh-grader with an adult band, and we made $7 each a night. We played there two nights a week. We made $14. I'm telling you that was money. You could get a malted milk for a dime. It wasn't too far past the nickel hamburger. The last nickel hamburger I remember in my life was Miss Hoffman's Restaurant right across the street from the School for the Blind in Jacksonville.
What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?
I don't know that it was pivotal. I think it was gradual, and circumstances of the moment kind of guided me in the direction I went. I always seemed to have a job playing, and I needed the jobs to pay the bills.
Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?
My regrets are any disappointments along the way that I might have caused anybody in any way. That's not easy to live with. I think as you grow older, you look back on life and realize how great people are and how great friendships are. Just getting along with people is what leads us to health and ultimate happiness, if we are ever to find it.
How do you handle a stressful situation?
I drink a lot of coffee.