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A Life In Balance

  Adele S. Bonney  

In his 31 years at Cornell, mathematics professor Ed Hill has exemplified what he tells students: “You’re going to have a job, but you’ll also have a life, and you’ll need to keep it all balanced.”

Hill will retire in June and can’t identify with the view of retirement as a reward for years of self-denial. He has never felt weighed down by his work, nor has he limited his personal interests, from gardening to singing in the church choir to building furniture in his wood-shop—a lifelong hobby he attributes to a clergyman father who said, “Ministers and teachers need to do something that gives quick results, since their work may not show any for a long time.” Hill sees himself continuing these activities, with perhaps a little more time to read his favorite historical fiction. This is a man with such cheerful receptiveness to the future that it’s more than a joke when he says with a hearty laugh, “I wonder what I’m going to do when I grow up!”

Balance was probably not what Hill’s father, a Lutheran minister, thought of when his son dropped out of Luther College and joined the Navy with a recruiting-poster goal “to see the world.” For the next four years Hill saw the world, sometimes through a periscope as an electronic technician and submariner. It was a tense and dangerous time, with the Cold War heating up, and “the Navy wasn’t going to let me out.” But Hill did get out and went back to Luther, where he was fated to meet his future wife, Sharon.
        Turning down job offers from General Mills and others, Hill chose to delve deeper into mathematics at Vanderbilt University. His specialty was abstract algebra because “it celebrates the human intellect in the way I like—mathematics for the sake of its beauty.” During graduate school he was pursued by IBM but was already leaning toward the life of a professor at a small college.

Given his personal background, Lutheran higher education was the obvious field and California, where he and Sharon had family, an appropriate destination. While teaching at California Lutheran College, Hill received a letter from a small town in Iowa. Cornell had hired a consultant from Vanderbilt who suggested Hill for an opening in the Cornell math department.

“We had a little baby girl,” Hill says with a smile, “and Sharon and I thought raising children in Iowa might be just the thing.” The Hills visited Mount Vernon, he recalls, during “perfect fall weather under a clear, blue sky” and emerged from the plane into a thick, brown smog on their return to Los Angeles. “It was a sign!” Hill exclaims, and it portended a move they’ve never regretted.

Because the Vanderbilt consultant suggested more than one name, Hill found himself at Cornell in 1969 with his friend from graduate school, Don Bailey. The two were colleagues for 14 years and have remained friends for 17 more. Now on the faculty at Trinity University in San Antonio, Bailey looks back on their long relationship and identifies devotion to family and a love for Iowa and Cornell as most characteristic of his friend. He says of Hill, “He is a man at home in his place and in place at his home.”

Hill’s community contributions reflect his wide-ranging talents. He has constructed Habitat for Humanity homes, as well as playground equipment and a park gazebo in Mount Vernon “built by the most skilled construction crew I’ve ever been on” (it included PhDs and a federal judge). His strong tenor has been heard in local musical theater productions, and his backstage contributions have included years of board membership.

Cornell has provided Hill a good professional home, allowing him to contribute in a variety of ways. Possibly the only faculty member in modern higher education ever to say, “I was doing lots of committee work and loved it,” Hill accepted a year-and-a-half tenure as assistant dean and then dean (1975-76). He has written grant proposals, including one that supported a program in the early ’80s for gifted high school students. He helped design the computer science major in the late ’70s, ran a summer computer camp for middle school students in 1983, and taught computer classes through 1987.

Students of all ages have learned from this professor, including adults at the time One-Course-At-A-Time was being marketed as adult education, but he clearly has a fondness for college undergraduates. And they have good and sometimes unusual memories of him. Many undoubtedly recall the moose head mounted in Law Hall and decorated with mortarboard, Santa hat, or other seasonal headgear by Hill.

Cal Van Niewaal ’72 remembers the time Hill, called away from his classroom during an exam, grabbed a stuffed owl from the biology department next door and set it up as the proctor. Or the time Hill gave an advanced algebra test that was a blank sheet of paper, telling the students simply to write about what they’d been working on.

“It was the personal things that made him interesting,” says Van Niewaal, a mathematics faculty member at Coe College since 1981 who has enjoyed organizing faculty development seminars with his former professor.

According to Hill, college students haven’t changed in basic ways over the past 31 years, although he has watched trends come and go (“at one point I thought everyone was named Jennifer!”). Nowadays he’s concerned about the number of students who feel they have to work at off-campus jobs. Although he understands their financial stresses, he says, “I think being a college student is a full-time job. I tell them ‘you can’t afford to get a C+ because you’re working to pay for your education. That’s not a good economic decision.’ ” He finds one recent trend heartening: more students supporting each others’ activities, attending concerts and athletic events, and, he believes, strengthening the campus community.

“And when they graduate,” he says, “I’d like to see them do the same in their communities.”

Adele S. Bonney lives and writes in Iowa City.

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