HANCOCK COUNTY — Before they were an Emmy Award-winning entrepreneur and an educator who signed thousands of diplomas, they were students in Vernon Township.
Darrell Thomas and Nathan Heck received Distinguished Alumni Awards at the Mt. Vernon Education Foundation’s annual Black and Gold Gala on Saturday. Heck, class of 1996, is executive producer, host and animator for the globetrotting video series “Artrageous with Nate.” Thomas, class of 1959, is a former longtime Mt. Vernon teacher and administrator who has served on several boards in Hancock County.
After graduating from Mt. Vernon High School, where he said mentors helped him find his passion for creation and entrepreneurship, Heck earned degrees in education and telecommunications from Ball State University. He received a master’s degree in educational technology from Indiana University.
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Heck taught art at Mt. Comfort Elementary School, where he would engage in projects like turning a hallway into a tomb and cruise around on his unicycle.
During his 10 years as a teacher, he grew concerned with annual decreases in art education funding. He left teaching in 2013 to focus more on creating online arts content able to be viewed by students around the globe. “Artrageous with Nate,” which has a website at artrageouswithnate.com, as well as a YouTube channel, has won eight Emmy awards and an Indiana Innovation Award. The series has distribution partnerships with WFYI and PBS Digital Studios.
“I’m an artist, but not like you imagine,” Heck said in information provided by the Mt. Vernon Education Foundation. “I can hold my own painting and drawing, but my passion is creative problem solving and storytelling. Taking ideas that seem impossible, and figuring out how to bring them into reality is my favorite art form.”
Heck told the Daily Reporter that receiving the distinguished alumni award reminded him of how supportive the school corporation was to him as a student and teacher.
“Here they are again, no need to do it, but yet still being incredibly supportive,” he said.
He encourages his newly fellow Mt. Vernon alumni to appreciate where they come from, adding kids who live in small towns who attend small schools often can’t wait to leave.
“You underestimate the value of what you got and where you’re from,” he said.
Heck recalled interviewing Broadway star and fellow Mt. Vernon alumnus Michele McConnell for his series and discussing that topic. He said they both concluded that a lot of why they were able to accomplish as much as they have is because of their small-town upbringings and educations.
“The school just did a really good job preparing us and pushing our creativity,” he said.
Thomas went to high school in McCordsville, where he was part of the last graduating class in 1959 before the school consolidated with Fortville. There were eight boys and one girl in his class. The girl was Nancy Apple, who has been Thomas’ wife for more than 56 years.
He studied physical and health education at Ball State University, where he also later earned a master’s degree and secondary administrator’s license. Thomas taught and coached at the junior high level in Mt. Comfort right as the Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation was forming. He became the new high school’s assistant principal in 1970, where he also taught two business classes.
Thomas became principal of the high school in 1979; he signed more than 3,000 diplomas over the next two decades.
Also in 1979, he joined the Hancock Rural Telephone Corporation Board, which later became NineStar Connect.
After retiring from Mt. Vernon in 1999, Thomas was Hancock County’s economic development director for four years. He also serves on the Hancock County Community Foundation’s board, Mt. Vernon Holding Corporation and supervises Ball State student teachers.
“It’s pretty humbling to know that the people that you’ve worked with, that are your friends, have considered that you’ve done a decent job with your career and are so deserving,” he told the Daily Reporter of receiving the distinguished alumni award.
When thinking of what he’d tell the new generation of Mt. Vernon alumni, he reflected on how much has changed since he worked at the high school.
“To give a kid advice today is a lot different than advice I’d give 20 years ago,” he said. “I think you just have to go with the flow, follow your dreams and persevere.”