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Friends, Colleagues, Students Remember Professor Matt Hils

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In his 30 years at Hiram College, Matt Hils was a mentor and friend to thousands.

While every alumnus, student, professor, staff and community member has his or her own story involving the beloved professor, almost every one of those stories involves that personal touch Hils was known for. For many, he was the professor that defined the Hiram College experience.

9408700023_2ba9ede6ab_zHils, professor of biology and director of the James H. Barrow Field Station and Center for the Study of Nature and Society, died June 10, 2014, after a battle with cancer.

All are invited to attend a memorial service from 10-11:45 a.m. on Saturday, June 14, outside the Field Station’s Observation Building. The program itself will begin at 10:30 a.m. The Field Station is located at 11305 Wheeler Road, Garrettsville, Ohio. There will be shuttles to and from the Field Station, departing from the Kennedy Center.

Hils’ love of nature, particularly plants, was contagious.

“Matt’s legacy is best seen through the thousands of students he inspired to become aware and then passionate about the world of plants, and this at a time when the study of botany is in great decline,” said colleague Denny Taylor, professor of biology. “In the field, he was a veritable living encyclopedia bringing dull facts to life through his ability to connect students with their green environment.”

And he was generous, both in spreading his knowledge and in taking an interest in others’ lives.

“He was generous with his time, his energy, his enthusiasm and his knowledge,” said colleague Prudy Hall, professor emeritus of biology. “Anyone who has ever been in the field, either at Hiram or on a study abroad trip with Matt, has benefitted from his generosity and knowledge in those circumstances. It took a long time to travel a trail in the woods or to cross a field because he saw so many things of interest and willingly told those of us with him about these things: the name of that tree, how that tree was related, evolutionarily, to another tree or how a plant was being affected by a nearby stream or the presence of surrounding plants.

“Traveling with him in the Galápagos Islands or in the cloud forest of mainland Ecuador was a superb experience that even the least informed of us came away richer for.”

Photo courtesy of Prudy Hall

Photo courtesy of Prudy Hall

Cara Constance ‘93, associate professor of biology, first came to know Hils when she arrived at Hiram College as a freshman in 1989. He was her First Year Colloquium professor and adviser, and she said it is thanks to him that she pursued her dreams of teaching biology at a small liberal arts college.

“I came to Hiram as a pre-vet major, but I realized through internships that it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she said. “Matt asked me, ‘Cara, what do you want to do?’ And no one had really asked me that before. It freed me to imagine myself being a teacher. I think Matt knew me better than I knew myself.”

The two kept in touch throughout Constance’s graduate and doctoral studies, and when she returned to Hiram to teach, Hils continued to mentor her, this time as a colleague. He was the one who encouraged her to teach Colloquium during her first year and the one who helped her plan her first study abroad trip.

“He never stopped being my adviser,” she said.

Colleague Sandy Madar, professor of biology and director of strategic academic initiatives, said she and the many students and colleagues who knew him, are incredibly enriched because of him.

“Matt was the quintessential model of a Hiram professor,” she said. “Regardless of the stresses of his daily work on behalf of the College, he was unwaveringly generous with his time for students, and downright gifted in his ability to help his advisees shape their understanding of their own strengths and passions.  I am guessing that he advised more than 500 students over his career!  On a daily basis, he took the time to ‘see’ everyone, never hesitating to attempt to lift spirits.”

Trinidad and Tobago trip, 2000. Photo courtesy of Brandon Clay.

Trinidad and Tobago trip, 2000. Photo courtesy of Brandon Clay.

Hils was born in Georgia and raised in Cincinnati. He earned his bachelor of arts in biology at Thomas More College, his master’s degree in botany from Miami University and his Ph.D. in botany from the University of Florida. The courses he taught at Hiram College since 1984, were field-based, with much time spent collecting and working with living organisms. He led a vascular plants systematics course involving a 10-day trip from the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. He also led several study abroad trips to the Galapagos Islands and Trinidad and Tobago.

He is survived by his son Shawn Hils of Denver, Colorado, daughter Amanda Hils of Hiram, parents M. David and Elizabeth Hils, brother David (Mary) Hils, sisters Kathy (Andy) Rechel, Sandy (Paul) Maffey, Linda (Jeff) Ratterman and Beth (Michael) Noe all of Cincinnati, Ohio and his partner Gloria Pugh-Kobus of Lordstown, Ohio. Read his obituary.

Photo courtesy of Prudy Hall.

Photo courtesy of Prudy Hall.

Additional memories of Professor Matt Hils, collected from Facebook and Twitter:

“I first met Matt Hils while on a tour to visit Hiram College as a senior in high school and knew then that I wanted to study with him. My very first class at Hiram in the fall of 1989 was his freshman colloquium on “Seeds of Civilization”. In my sophomore year I almost switched to a chemistry major until I enrolled in his spring quarter Vascular Plants class and knew that plant systematics was for me. Our field trip that quarter included camping in the Smoky Mountains, visiting Krohn Conservatory, crashing at his parents’ house and tasting our first Cincinnati Style Chili. We learned to identify plants using the “Vascular Plants of Ohio” book that I still use to this day. Recently when I was doing outreach to a group of fourth graders they asked me if I remembered when I made my first plant collection and I responded that my first 10 were made in that Vascular Plants class at Hiram! My Walsh students are truly part of Matt’s legacy in that my teaching style has always been to emulate him in the classroom and field.  I still have all the notes from his classes on my office bookshelf and still find myself consulting them from time to time.  We will miss you Matt…..25 years of knowing you was not enough.”
– Jennifer Amick Clevinger, Hiram College Class of 1993, Professor of Biology at Walsh University, North Canton, Ohio

“Prof Hils was my advisor freshman year and he was really supportive throughout that tough year of 2001! He also was checking on me for years to follow and became a mentor and friend. He will always be remembered.”
–       Linda Palestina

“I got my love and appreciation of plants, and most of all Monty Python from Matt. Every time I go to the Krohns conservatory in cincinnati, I can still hear the descriptions he have during our class visit. Hiram and the world lost a great professor and teacher.”
–       Leah Weitzman

“You were a great professor, advisor, and friend to your students. You will truly be missed! I realized that I had an appreciation for plants after deciding to take you vascular plants class. You encouraged me to follow my passion and I thank you for that.”
–       Ebony McNeal

“Matt was a wonderful professor. I remember dreading non-vascular plants, but through his constant cheering me on I survived it. Thanks for being a professor even 20 years later that I remember and smile.”
–       Erica Finney

“Some of my best memories of Hiram – both academically and personally – include him. He was wonderful, and I hope his family knows how much he was loved and respected by his students & Hiram community. Rest in peace, Professor Hils…you will be, and already are, missed.”
–       Ria Kapluck

“In 2008 during the ice storm/blackout Matt picked me up at 5 am to bring me to the airport to fly home for spring break! He was truly one of the best professors I have ever had and an inspiration to stay true to myself! He will truly be missed!”
–       Caitlin Olmstead

“I only had him as a professor in Bio freshman year, which is strange since I was a bio major, but whenever I saw him on campus he never passed up the opportunity to say hi, ask how soccer was going, and wish me luck on our next game. I can think of so many times he came to our home games to cheer us on. Even after I graduated he helped me out when I had questions about applying to vet school and was continually supportive. Rest in Peace…”
–       Emily Bristol

“A great loss! So sad to hear of his passing. He was a great teacher and an even better advisor and person. He played a great part in who I am today and I am forever great full. RIP my friend:(“
–       Paul Steward

“I’m deeply saddened to hear of his passing. He was an amazing professor and human. His energy and passion was contagious. He was always willing to go the extra mile for everyone. I remember you could never fall asleep in his class- and when someone did he’d often have a ball of socks that he’d throw to wake them up! It was often quite amusing. My thoughts and prayers with his family.”
–       Tressa Jordan

“On my initial visit to campus, he stopped and me asked how it went, and why. Matt’s personal touch, in part, led me to Hiram. Last time I saw him, Matt took time to ask about my career – and offer advice – even though my job doesn’t involve science. Matt Hils was the embodiment of the Hiram spirit – service focused, with a real passion for knowledge to further that service.”
–       Bradley Cromes

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