Retired Berkeley High School math, science teacher dies in canoeing accident

Heidi Boley, a retired math and science teacher whose work influenced many students, died in a canoeing accident on the Russian River on Friday. She was 69.

Boley and her two friends were canoeing on the Russian River near Healdsburg, California, when their canoe accidentally overturned about noon, according to Sonoma County Sheriff’s Lt. John Molinari in a press release. Her two friends swam to safety, but Boley, despite wearing a life jacket, appears to have drowned. She was found under some tree limbs in the river about an hour after the canoe capsized.

“She loved being in and on the water,” said Todd Boley, Heidi Boley’s ex-husband. “It was one of those freakish things that happened.”

Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Boley spent her childhood in Maui as the eldest of four children in a family of plantation and cannery workers, according to her son Justin Boley. She moved to the mainland after receiving a scholarship to study biology at Whitman College in Washington.

“Because education had opened doorways for her, she worked the hardest for children from underprivileged backgrounds,” Justin Boley said in an email. “She had a firm belief in giving students every chance to build on their failures, to demand and honor improvement.”

Boley’s ex-husband stated she attended a graduate marine biology program at the University of the Pacific and also graduated from UC Berkeley with a master of arts degree in education. She began working for Berkeley Unified School District in 1984, according to Charles Burress, spokesperson for the school district.

At the time of her death, Boley was working part-time for the district in the Berkeley Research, Evaluation and Assessment department.

“What the BREA team remembers most about Heidi is that she truly was a gentle soul,” said BREA Director Debbi D’Angelo in a statement. “She was a champion for students and sought to ensure that all students could access the curriculum.”

Her son said in an email that Boley also taught high school students in Tomales Bay and her hometown in Maui and worked as an administrator in the Oakland Unified School District. In addition, Boley offered curriculum consulting and teacher training to various schools around the world.

“She just had a wonderful smile, and she made geometry fun,” said Daniel Goldstein, a Berkeley High School graduate taught by Boley in 1986. “It was probably the only math class that I really loved.”

Erica Willie, a Berkeley High School graduate who had Boley in 1996, stated that Boley was an incredibly impactful teacher and was her only teacher that had the intention of helping her understand the subject, even if she did not like science and math. Willie said she tries to impart this same lesson to her son, a current senior at Berkeley High School.

Faye Wylder, a Berkeley High School student of Boley’s in 1996, said Boley was almost a total stranger when the teacher reached out to Wylder during a time she wasn’t doing well in school and didn’t believe in herself.

“She called our house every night to see if I was OK,” Wylder said. “She extended herself and her kindness and service during a time that was really dark and hard for me. … That will be with me for the rest of my life.”

In addition to her work, Boley was an avid dragon boat rower, competing across the world, such as in Venice, Italy, with DragonMax, the Berkeley dragon boat team, according to Mary Ann Rettig-Zucchi, president of the Berkeley Racing Canoe Center.

Janet Windesheim, Boley’s hairdresser and friend said Boley loved to cook and garden and always made her apricot jam, cakes and breads.

“After I said, ‘Heidi (is) coming,’ my dogs would just sit on the front stoop, waiting for her,” Windesheim said. “She was the most wonderful person. Anything you needed, she would be there to help you.

Boley is survived by her son, along with her brother, sister and extended family in Hawaii.

Contact Gibson Chu at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @thegibsonchu.