Originally Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2012, 7:28 pm
Last Updated: Nov. 25, 2012, 12:11 pm

Retired police captain sparks student curiosity in reading

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By Rachel Warmke, rwarmke@qconline.com

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Photo: Todd Welvaert
Retired Moline police captain Greg Heist holds the children's book he wrote, "Johnny Copper and the Case of the Missing Chocolate," Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012.

After 30 years on the Moline Police force, retired captain of criminal investigations Greg Heist might never stop asking "Who done it?"

Now, he's inspiring elementary-aged children to ask the big questions. "The Copper Kids Project," a program developed by Mr. Heist around his book, "Johnny Copper and the Case of the Missing Chocolate" is intended to spark children's interest in reading and detective work.

The 98-page chapter book, Mr. Heist's first, relays the adventures of two precocious best friends, Johnny Copper and Carly Cruz, who are persuaded to use their detecting skills after their teacher's favorite chocolate bars turn up missing. With only a handful of initial clues, the young sleuths must interview witnesses, analyze evidence, dust for fingerprints and identify suspects.

Inspiration for the book came around 2004, after Mr. Heist created a small library in the police substation of the Floreciente neighborhood, calling it "Bean Bags and Books."

He installed a checkout system and would occasionally invite students from nearby Ericsson Elementary School so he could read to them.

"I thought I would start a little book of my own," he said with a smile, recalling he had wanted to create a makeshift, printed out book about detective work –- something he never intended to publish.

During nights when inspiration struck, Mr. Heist would type away at the story on a home computer.

Despite having no formal training, "I've always tinkered around with writing," he said. Work on the book gradually slowed as the years went by and he was eventually promoted to captain of the criminal investigation division.

It wasn't until his retirement in January 2011, that his thoughts returned to the book, which he finished early this year.

"I wasn't quite sure I was ever going to put that final period down. And I finally said to myself 'you've got to stop going back,'" he remembered with a chuckle.

Mr. Heist researched and found his own editor, cover artist and printer. Numerous family members assisted, including two third-grade great-nieces, who provided feedback on everything from vocabulary choices to illustrations.

Beginning this summer, he took the completed book to area businesses throughout the Quad-Cities, asking them to purchase copies that could then be given to local third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. Businesses, from ice cream parlors to Mr. Heist's dentist, agreed to partner up with the project, many requesting their purchased books be gifted to specific schools.

"We like to support local projects in our school," said Margaret Martin, co-owner of McKay's Plating Co. in Hampton, who donated copies of Mr. Heist's book to Hampton Elementary, where her grandchildren attend. "Any new program in the schools is a good idea," she said.

During his 30-minute presentation, Mr. Heist engages students in a discussion about detecting the world around them and teaches his personalized formula, "Reading plus Leading equals Succeeding."

In a society often dominated by iPads and smartphones, Mr. Heist said he attempts to spark students' curiosity in reading, which he calls "push-ups for the brain," as well as encouraging them to be leaders in their classroom and community.

"The message that I try to leave with them is success is not just winning or coming in first; it's not always measured by who's number one," he said about the 1,100 students he has talked to since the program's inception.

During one of his most recent school visits, Mr. Heist visited with more than 200 elementary school students at his alma mater, Riverdale Elementary School in Port Byron. "I could tell it meant something for him to come back and do something for the community that he grew up with," Riverdale Principal Josh Temple said. He said the Nov. 19 talk complemented the school's reading incentive program.

At the conclusion of each discussion, students are given an autographed copy of Mr. Heist's book, which oftentimes includes the emblem or sticker of the business that donated them.

"I want them to know, even though they are young, someone has chosen to do this for you because they care about your education," the retired captain said.

He recalled a recent instance on Halloween night when he was approached by a trick-or-treater. As the young girl received her candy, she turned back toward the door and told him, "I read your book, and I really liked it," Mr. Heist recalled with a grin.

Having primarily visited schools in areas such as Hampton, Port Byron, Moline and East Moline, Mr. Heist said he hopes to attract additional businesses in order to bring his book to other parts of the Quad-Cities, such as Rock Island and Bettendorf. In the meantime, the fledgling author said he is back at work on a second book in the Johnny Copper series, which he said he hopes to have published by summertime.

Plans for an entire series are tentative right now, he said, but meanwhile, Mr. Heist aims to continue sharing his work and message to inquisitive students in the area.

"There might be some future detectives out there -- you just never know," he said.

Interested in becoming involved with the project? Contactheistgreg@gmail.com for more information.


Area businesses that have donated to the project

Aramark
Blimpies
Courtesy Car City
Deere Harvester Credit Union
Dr. John Naert
Group O
Heritage Landscaping
Landmark Engineering Group
McKay Plating Co.
Remember When Ice Cream
Porters RX
Safe Money Concepts