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September 27, 2015

Gifted professor’s ‘life of the mind’ was also life of near destitution

A philosophy professor who died earlier this year was making so little money at age 61 he lived in a room in a dilapidated boardinghouse. The story of Dave Heller is focusing attention on the plight of the temp college teacher.

When visitors walked into the dilapidated boardinghouse where Dave Heller lived, the smell alone could transport them back to their college days.

“It smelled like grad student,” jokes Charlie Fischer, a friend. “Like years of boiled noodles and rice.”

Except Heller was 61 years old and a philosophy instructor at Seattle University. Yet he lived in a room in a tenant group house in Seattle’s U District, with nothing but a bed, a fridge and his library of 3,000 books.

When he died earlier this year from an untreated thyroid condition, Heller was making only $18,000 a year teaching philosophy on a part-time, adjunct basis, his friends say. That’s about one-third the median income for a single person in Seattle, and barely above the federal poverty line.