Dave Hill

- 2014

Dave Hill, longtime member of the geography faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder, passed away in Louisville, Colorado on Sunday, January 19, 2014.

They say at 50 you end up with the face you deserve. From the moment I first saw Dave Hill’s sparkling eyes and Cheshire Cat smile, I knew that I made the right decision to study with him in the PhD program at CU Boulder.

The venue was a session on geography education at the 1996 AAG Annual Meeting in Charlotte. Dave and a few of his students were on hand to discuss a new project, Geographic Inquiry into Global Issues. GIGI, as it was known, was a collection of modules for secondary schools that supported the recently published national geography standards. To my young eyes GIGI captured everything I thought geography education should be: fresh, exciting, relevant, and unafraid of controversial issues.

Dave was a giant and always encouraging, even when being critical of my work. He was the most generous, kind, and compassionate advisor and mentor one could ever hope for.

On occasion Dave would make a star turn at playing the role of absent-minded professor. Once we spent an entire hot Saturday walking the Boulder Creek trail to take photos and gather data for making a virtual field study of flood hazards. At the conclusion of our journey Dave opened his camera and realized he had forgot to load it with film. No big deal. We just went back the next day and I got to hear more stories about Dave playing football during the “leather-helmet” era at CU.

Dave was close to retirement when I started my PhD. I promised him that I would study hard and finish on schedule. At least once a week I would provide him with progress reports over lunch at some restaurant on “The Hill” in Boulder. Those lunches usually ended with Dave footing the bill and me meekly offering him a stick of Juicy Fruit as a token of gratitude. The last time Dave took me to lunch – I think about a week or so before my graduation – he presented me with a gift-wrapped box of Juicy Fruit. I smiled and told him I wish I could’ve afforded to buy him a gold watch. He got a big chuckle out of that.

I’ll never forget that frigid graduation day at CU Boulder in December 1999. A few minutes before the start of the ceremony, an usher instructed me and my fellow graduates to line up by the entrance to the auditorium. Dave stood by my side and never budged. When the usher asked him to join the faculty assembled in a different seating area, Dave put his hand on my shoulder, shook his head, and with a big grin said, “I’m sitting with him.”

(Incidentally, if I look alarmed in that photo, it’s because I had to receive emergency root canal treatment on my front tooth a few hours after the ceremony. I guess dentist appointments were one of the sacrifices I made to graduate on time).

It’s no exaggeration to say that I owe everything I have professionally to Dave. He introduced me to a world of thought that affirmed the power of geography in education. One of my most cherished experiences as a CU graduate student was being introduced to Gilbert White in one of Dave’s seminars. Dave recalled being in a similar setting back when he was attending CU. Professor White engaged Dave and his fellow graduate students in a discussion of the role of geography in liberal education and what they thought it should be. Dave remarked, “Gilbert White was not only interested in our views. He also wanted to convey the idea that, as future stewards of our discipline, we should be fully vested in these fundamental questions.” The torch is passed.

Sometimes I open my old CU files and pull out a reading list that Dave prepared for my doctoral orals. At the top is a hand-scribbled note from Dave that says, “Of enduring interest to geography education.” The list is replete with entries by John Dewey, Francis Slater, Jerome Bruner and so many other wonderful educational philosophers inside and outside of geography. I’d like to think that something I’ve written someday could make the cut.

Ask any of the hundreds of geography teachers who benefited from Dave’s professional development institutes through the Colorado Geographic Alliance, and to a person they will remark on the qualities that endeared him to so many: his loyalty to students, friends and family, his refusal to compromise quality, and his indefatigable devotion to geography education. The man could also make one hell of a martini.

The last time I saw Dave Hill was in June of 2009. He invited me to his condo in Boulder for a lamb chop dinner with Myhra, his wife of 50+ years. Afterwards he walked me down to the Pearl Street mall and we found a bench to sit on and enjoy the buskers.

At this point in his life Dave’s once sturdy voice was beginning to sound a bit frail and frayed. “Michael,” he said, “I’ll always appreciate the fact that you kept in touch.” And with that he hugged me goodbye and wandered back up the hill, a golden sun setting over the Flatirons.

Rest in Peace, Dave, and thanks for everything.