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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Remembering DG Heath, who embraced living and writing in Mérida

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
John Johnson, left, and David Heath celebrated their 52nd anniversary on Valentine’s Day 2022, less than a month before David’s death. Photo: Facebook / DG Heath

David Heath, for whom I had the pleasure of shepherding his numerous late-in-life books, died this week. 

He was 79 years old and ailing, yet his death came as a shock. 

David, known to readers as DG Heath, was a steadfast member of the Mérida Writers Group, honing his craft that began with letters to friends. His partner John tells me he didn’t really begin writing as an avocation until 2013 when they moved to Mérida. 

“​​I wanted the letters to be interesting, informative and fun to read,” he wrote on his blog. “Several people said I should put them in a book. They shared them with friends who requested to be added to my mailing list. I developed an interest in writing a book about our life together before Merida, including living with an eccentric millionaire in California, our travels, gourmet cooking and dining, plus owning and running a Relais & Châteaux country inn (Rancho de San Juan) in New Mexico for almost 20 years and the interesting people we entertained.”

I was privileged to publish that last idea, and it was a pleasure to do so. Really, I acted more as an author services company than a publisher. David knew exactly what we wanted, including how the chapter headings should look. It was easy work publishing Tales from a Country Inn.

He then went on to mysteries, very fanciful stories filled with well-dressed people sipping Champagne at noon to discuss the latest murder. As intended, they were escapist fun. 

As a gay man, I took particular interest in a life story that began sometime in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time I saw through a small child’s eyes. 

And the fact we both spotted Merida and decided it would be home was evidence that we had some common ground, despite our generational differences. 

I don’t think David really saw himself as a pioneer and a survivor of a generation that faced not only the Vietnam draft but also the AIDS crisis.

He was born in Fort Worth, Texas on Aug. 10, 1942. He and John met in San Francisco in September 1969 (as I was entering kindergarten, but enough about me) and moved in together on Valentine’s Day 1970. 

Together they built and ran Rancho de San Juan. After they sold the inn, they made a big decision.

“With David having no living family and my parents’ death, we decided to make Mérida our home for the rest of our lives. We both had an appreciation and desire to live in Mexico since our college days,” John told me.

David kept me busy and encouraged me after I folded Hamaca Press to focus on a daily news site and a quarterly magazine. I kept insisting that I was done with books, but he kept handing me manuscripts. I’m forever grateful for that gentle nudge. 

DG Heath signed copies of “Yes, We Have No Camels” at Between the Lines in 2021. Photo: Mérida Writers Group

The Mérida community was also welcoming to David. He was invited to hold book signings at Between the Line and, when pandemic fears increased, on the terrace at the restaurant Zinc, where they had befriended the owner.

But the last months were challenging. The last time I saw him, I was surprised to see he had lost a lot of weight and was breathing with the help of an oxygen tank. His correspondence was so cheerful, I had forgotten that he told me over the summer about his diagnosed pulmonary fibrosis. 

He was asking me for help with his latest book, Hampton Park, which he described as  “a modern-day Downton Abbey, and, of course, involves a multitude of interesting characters. There’s sudden inheritance, cumbersome debts, a grand estate to restore, more than one financial crisis, spiritual happenings, death, murder, disinheritance, romance between four women and three men, with fate twisting the heartstrings one way and then another.”

David Heath, right, gathers with his partner John and with fellow writer Maryetta Ackenbom in 2018. Another expat writer, Grant Spradling, was host. Photo: Mérida Writers Group

Certainly, only a healthy man could resolve such a tangled plot. 

Then, in February, I learned of a heart attack where he had momentarily flatlined. (I flashed back to another author friend, Grant Spradling, who experienced something similar before a small book tour I helped organize shortly before his demise.) 

“I died, but was revived by electrodes at the last minute. A shocking experience to say the least,” he wrote, keeping the tone upbeat.

He was looking forward to the future. 

“There is a long road ahead on recovering, but we’ve made it this far and we still have each other,” he said while thanking John for his loving care.

Their nine years together in Mérida proved to be a blessing, and the culmination of a dream both had since their college days, John said to me.

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