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Frank Oppenheimer’s Influence on Jeffco Alumni

James Heckman, Nobel Prize Winner & Jeffco Alumni Reflects on Frank Oppenheimer’s Influence
Posted on 03/12/2024

Dr. James Heckman

Photo: Dr. James J. Heckman

 In the bustling hallways of Lakewood High School during the late 1950s, a young and curious Jeffco student named James Heckman found himself in a transformative period of history. Having recently moved to Colorado, James was about to experience a unique and mind-expanding education at the hands of one of Jeffco Public Schools’ most iconic teachers, Frank Oppenheimer.

As James reflects on those formative years between 1958-1961, he recalls a country recovering from the Red Scare and the impactful shock of Sputnik’s launch. The educational landscape was changing, with a newfound emphasis on science and mathematics, fueled by the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. Jeffco, inspired by this national push to excel in these fields, embraced a program developed by the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) and leading researchers at universities - most notably Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - named the “Exceptional Students Program.” It was James’ sophomore year when he took the exam to enter into this student program held at Wheat Ridge High School.

Frank Oppenheimer as a Jeffco Teacher

Wheat Ridge Year book with Frank Oppenheimer as a science teacher



Frank Oppenheimer was recruited to teach special physics courses. A physicist who had faced the challenges of McCarthyism and had previously worked on cosmic rays at the University of Minnesota, Oppenheimer was now teaching advanced science to a group of exceptional students from across Jefferson County.

The brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project fame, Frank was a soft-spoken and gentle man with an infectious curiosity and love for experimental science. The students, including James, found themselves captivated by Frank’s enthusiasm and unique teaching methods.

Wheat Ridge High School Year Book; Mrs. Howard, Dr. Oppenheimer, Mr. Pratt, Mr. Work, Mr. Proctor, Mr. Powell


James remembers his learning experience vividly, almost like being invited to a new world where theoretical knowledge and practical experimentations went hand in hand. Frank’s ability to convey complex scientific concepts in an engaging manner left a memorable mark on both James and his classmates.

“I remember a group of us going to his house in Boulder one day and he played the entirety of Beethoven’s Opus 131 while we sat and listened,” James recounts. “I often think of this moment because it was a type of music I had never experienced before. This is an example of what Frank did for us; he exposed us to what education could be.” Frank’s impact extended beyond the classroom, bringing in renowned scientists and exposing students to a broader intellectual landscape. James found himself attending forums in Denver’s City Park and taking public transportation to the Denver Public Library as often as possible, absorbing insights from diverse speakers and challenging his own perspectives.

The exposure to different ideologies and encouragement to explore curiosity played a pivotal role in James’s academic and professional journey. Lessons learned from Frank Oppenheimer continued to shape his worldview. Heckman credits his time at Jeffco for instilling values of true tolerance and appreciation for diversity.

LIFE AFTER GRADUATION from lakewood high school

After graduating, Frank recommended James attend Cornell University. However, James decided to attend Colorado College in Colorado Springs after another Jeffco teacher informed him about an affordable path available through the Boettcher Foundation scholarship. James entered college as a physics major but eventually shifted into economics after valuable experiences began to shape his future. Some of these included sharing a college dorm with a roommate from Nigeria during the peak of the civil rights movement and later benefiting from mentorship by W. Arthur Lewis, the first Black man to win a Nobel Prize in the economic sciences. “I have always felt that American society is so stratified. I learned about the rest of the world through interacting with other people,” James reflects.


His career path included challenging the norms, conducting groundbreaking research on the impact of civil rights laws in the South, and exploring the complexities of human capital. The seeds of curiosity planted by Frank Oppenheimer continued to bear fruit throughout his life. Heckman is a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences recipient and is most known for his work in quantitative analysis in the social sciences – the Heckman correction. James is currently a Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago and continues to be an advocate for curiosity in education with his Heckman equation.

James Heckman winning Nobel prize in 2000

James Heckman winning the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2000

Looking back, James offers valuable advice to today’s young people: “Keep an open mind and listen to people. Be open to experience and ideas that seem odd. It is good to challenge both others and yourself.” James remains grateful as he recounts the opportunities provided and the encouragement to explore lessons that transcended the classroom, whether it be learning quantum physics or receiving tips on winning arm wrestling contests from his homeroom teacher. James’ education continues to influence his belief in the power of embracing curiosity and the inevitable lessons that come with failure and lifelong learning.

Take a closer look at James Heckman’s accomplished career.

Dr. Heckman Year Book Compilation

James Heckman's year book compilation from 1958-1996. President of the forensics club, a marching band member and in the Radio-Electronics club.

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