DeAnn Heline first came to the Black Hills as a fourth grader and was struck by the area’s beautiful landscape and wild animals. This week, four decades later, she came back as a TV producer and writer to encourage Pine Ridge students to pursue their dreams.
Heline, 53, broke into the TV industry in her mid-20s as a writer on the comedy-drama series “Doogie Howser, M.D.” She went on to write for popular sitcoms such as “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown,” and became an executive producer of “How I Met Your Mother.”
She recently wrapped up work on “The Middle,” a sitcom about the everyday struggles of a middle-class Midwestern family, which she co-created and next month will air its series finale after a nine-year run.
On Monday, Heline spoke before some 600 elementary to high school students on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation about her profession, including how she went from a suburban Ohio town to the Los Angeles world of television production.
“It really is about the decisions that you make for yourself every single day,” Heline said, recounting her talk in a Journal interview. “‘Am I gonna be someone who goes out and parties and drinks, or am I gonna be someone who finishes my (school) paper? Am I gonna be someone who, when high school’s over, I’m gonna go to college?'”
Heline told her young audiences — at Little Wound School, Wolf Creek Elementary and Pine Ridge High School — that they can succeed despite the seeming impossibility. But, she added, they need to put in hard work, develop connections and chase opportunities.
Her “Doogie Howser, MD” break in the early ’90s came when Eileen Heisler, her writing partner (apparently a norm in TV comedy writing), was working as a production assistant on the show and learned its producers were looking for story pitches.
“She marched into their office and said, ‘My writing partner and I have a lot of great ideas, and we want to pitch them to you,’” Heline said.
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The producers said they were interested in hearing the women’s ideas. When Heline learned of this, she went into a bit of a panic, telling Heisler: “What are our great ideas? Because I have no idea.”
They ended up writing two episodes of the show. They’ve since been a writing team.
Heline’s Pine Ridge trip was organized by Mike Kelly, who has been bringing inspirational speakers to the reservation since 2013. The previous speakers were all athletes, including National Basketball Association Hall of Famer Rick Barry and Sara McMann, the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling silver medal.
Kelly, a resident of Boise, Idaho, said he came up with the annual talks as a way to contribute to the people of Pine Ridge. This year, he decided to switch up the speaker profile because he wanted the talks to also appeal to young people interested in the arts.
Kelly’s wife, Annie, loves “The Middle” so he thought of inviting the show’s creator. After watching an episode, he and Annie waited for the credits to roll, saw Heline’s name as co-creator and proceeded to get in touch with her.
He characterizes Heline — a wife and mother of two daughters — as a generous person who accepted the speaking invitation without hesitation.
“She didn’t ask for a penny for her time. She didn’t want to be compensated,” Kelly said in a phone interview. Heline came to town accompanied by her husband, Bruce Bolkin, a lawyer and businessman who helped take photos of the event.
Kelly and Heline both share the hope that the talk touched even one student and inspired that young person not to give up on a dream. Someday, one of the participants might return to Pine Ridge as a popular writer, entertainer or filmmaker.