By Ms. Kari Hawkins (AMCOM)March 20, 2017
From the smile on her face when she talks about her job, it's easy to see that Heidi Collier is in her element when it comes to helping employees with leadership development.
Collier, who is a Human Resources Development specialist working in the Training and Career Development Division, AMCOM Operations (G-3), is a lead instructor for AMCOM's Leader Investment for Tomorrow training program. Since 2011, she has taught the Advanced LIFT class, an assignment that has been the culmination of a teaching career with the government.
"I've been a teacher all my life," she said.
She also oversees the Civilian Education System, mandatory training and the Total Army Centralized Individual Training Solicitation (TACITS) for AMCOM.
Collier's professional and personal roots run much deeper at Redstone Arsenal than her years with AMCOM and the 13 years prior when she worked in the training office for the Civilian Personnel Operations Center, now known as the Civilian Human Resources Agency. Collier grew up in Huntsville as the daughter of Fritz Weber, a member of the original 120 German rocket scientists that came to the U.S. with Dr. Wernher von Braun after World War II.
"Gen. (Holger) Toftoy (who, in 1944, was chief of the Army Ordnance Technical Intelligence) knew that the U.S. needed the brain trust of the German rocket scientists," Collier said. "He convinced the Army to bring these scientists to the U.S. and they were kept in a prisoner of war camp at Fort Bliss, Texas. One of the scientists -- Ernst Stuhlinger -- preferred to call the group prisoners of peace."
Eventually, the German rocket team was allowed to bring their families to America. Collier was born at Fort Bliss.
In 1950, the German rocket team moved their work to the Arsenal, and their families became part of the Huntsville community. Toftoy came to the Arsenal in 1953 to serve as the director of the Ordnance Missile Laboratories, which allowed him to work with the German scientists. After growing up in the shadow of Huntsville's burgeoning missile and space programs, Collier attended the University of Alabama and graduated from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Marriage to an Air Force officer took Collier to the Philippines, where she got her first teaching job.
"I taught remedial reading and provided individualized instruction to airmen who were working to get their high school diplomas as part of the Pre-Discharge Education Program at Clark Air Base in the Philippines," she said.
Collier and her husband had two sons. The family lived at various Air Force bases until the couple divorced. On her own with two school-age boys at the age of 42, Collier realized that the federal government was her best choice for a career. She worked for the Veterans Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture before returning to teaching with a job at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, where she delivered basic computer training to Air Force officers attending the Air War College.
Friends in Huntsville reached out to her and, in 1998, she joined the CPOC training group that brought her to Redstone Arsenal and eventually to AMCOM's LIFT program.
"I started my federal government career as a GS-3. My aspiration was to make it to a GS-9. I've gotten past that and I've gained so much more in so many other ways," Collier said.
"The LIFT program has been so rewarding for me. I've taught six classes of Advanced LIFT and it's been wonderful to see the connections each group has made both with each other and in the community. As GS-14s and 15s they are high level leaders to begin with, but then to see them grow in their leadership skills is amazing."
Although she is officially the Advanced LIFT instructor, Collier views herself more as a cheerleader or facilitator setting the conditions for each of the classes to learn and grow in leadership in their own unique way. Each year, she begins the class by having students reflect on their past and where it has taken them as they develop. The students create their own life map, take self-assessment tests and plan out where they want the rest of their lives to take them.
"They have to consider what their legacy will be five years out and then they present that to the class. They also have to choose a project as a group that will have an impact on Team Redstone," Collier said. "The more you challenge them, the more capable they become.
"During the year, they become much like a family to each other. Because the students come from across Redstone Arsenal, the class becomes a wonderful mix of personalities, and organizations and career fields represented."
In 2015, the Advanced LlFT class developed a Redstone Arsenal Social Media Outreach video with the help of the National Geographic Channel's Rocket City Redneck, Dr. Travis Taylor. The 2016 class developed and launched "Redstone Explorer," a mobile app for Team Redstone.
But, Collier's contributions to Team Redstone's community don't end with her job. When she came back to Huntsville in 1998, Collier rekindled friendships with members of the German rocket team. In 2008, she worked with other descendants to develop a memorial to its 120 original members, which is on display in the U.S. Space & Rocket Center's Apollo Courtyard. For several years, she also served as a spokesperson for the elderly German scientists who remained in Huntsville long after their work with NASA and the Army. Only one, 102-year-old Dr. Georg von Tiesenhausen, is still living.
As she makes plans to retire this summer, Collier will become even more involved with the community and sharing the German rocket team's history. She is planning to write a book that emphasizes the human interest side of their move to America and eventually to Huntsville.
"They developed rockets for space and then were forced to build missiles for Nazi Germany," Collier said. "They were so excited to be able to come to America. Then they were confined in a community behind a fence at Fort Bliss, but, of course, this was for their own safety."
Their German ingenuity and sense of community flourished in the U.S. despite being kept separated from American society.
"Because they were seen as prisoners of war, they were given very little, but they didn't let that discourage them," Collier said.
"They built their own medical insurance program by putting in $5 each into a fund so their families could get emergency medical care. When they came to Huntsville, they collected their savings together so that one family could have the $5,000 in their bank account needed as collateral to secure a home loan. Once the first family had their loan, the $5,000 was moved to the next family's bank account, and so on. They were at the center of the space generation, yet people don't know what it was like to grow up with a German rocket scientist."
Collier will also travel to Peenemunde, Germany, in October for the international observance of the 75th anniversary of the successful launch of the first rocket into space on Oct. 3, 1942, which made Peenemunde the birthplace of modern rocket science.
And, she will also take on responsibilities as the German Heritage Committee chairman for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center as it prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 2019. She also wants to spend more time with her family.
"There are so many things that I will be doing," she said. "I delayed retirement for seven months because there were some things here that I still wanted to get done. But come this summer, I will be ready to retire and put my time to things I want to do in this wonderful Redstone Arsenal and Huntsville community."