Professor Richard Hilt would likely wince upon seeing his full title printed in the campus newspaper. When I went into his Barnes corner office he introduced himself with a firm handshake and said to call him Dick. Dick is how students refer to the legendary Physics and Astronomy professor, and the name belies the sense of comfort and familiarity that he exudes as a member of the Colorado College community. The walls of Barnes 218 are covered with mementos from the past 52 years and stem from a whole manner of intellectual pursuits. One poster proudly advertises the “Dick Hilt Alliance” and another shows smiling students lounging at Baca. Dick Hilt is a CC fixture and speaks highly of the liberal arts lifestyle he has lived at CC over the course of his career. Hilt can often be found sitting in on “Freedom and Authority” lunches or co-teaching classes with professors from a variety of departments on campus. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching physics in a context where I’d be expected to provide a little history and a little cultural background, instead of just talking about Newton’s Law. The Fire of London, the Plague—things like that,” said Hilt. Retirement may be on the horizon for Hilt, but for now he is as sharp as ever and continues to take students on the same adventures that he has for the past five decades.
The Catalyst: Where did you grow up?
Dick Hilt: I grew up in Florida on the East Coast, swimming everyday, and even in high school I decided that teaching would be fun. Then, I got to college and thought ‘well, teaching high school would not be so fun, teaching college might be fun.’ When I got to grad school I thought teaching undergrads would be more fun than teaching grad students. Grad students are professionals and the blinders are on, they’re going to one place only. I went to Oberlin College for my undergraduate, which is a lot like CC, and you major in something but you’re expected to have an appreciation for lots of different things. Oberlin certainly provided that along with four years of clouds, rain, slush—a wretched climate. All the way through grad school I knew I wanted to teach in a place like Oberlin and I got more lucky than you can imagine when, close to the end of grad school, CC advertised for a physics teacher. CC wanted a theoretician, they thought, and I conned them into thinking I was a theoretician, and the rest is history.
TC: What was your spiritual background growing up?
DH: I was a choir boy when I grew up. My Mom went to church but my Father never did. As soon as I got to college I continued singing in choirs, but I slept on Sunday mornings. I generally got pretty cynical about organized religion of any sort. As I’ve told more than one of my classes, I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. I tend always to look for a scientific reason for things happening. I know that other people view the world with different colored glasses and can see God everywhere or Gods everywhere and they will lead long and happy lives and have the world be consistent with their beliefs.
If you’re looking at say, Native Americans in the Southwest, they’ve got a whole structure which they may or may not be willing to tell you about, which provides them with an intellectual home that lets them see the world and the way they live as consistent with a whole, making sense for them. Who’s to knock it? It’s not consistent with my beliefs but that’s okay. There can be more than one way to live. Surprising as it might seem, it is certainly true.
TC: In what ways are students the same, and in what ways are they different, in 2016 compared to students that attended in the 70s, 80s, and 90s?
DH: I’d say when I first came all the students I met had had sort of a classic pre-college education: four years of math, four years of science, four years of history, four years of English, maybe four years of something else, languages.
When they came they could do algebra like crazy, but they couldn’t write for diddly squat. Now, almost all students can write pretty well but they can’t do algebra for diddly squat. So that’s one change. They were smart then, and they’re smart now. They went off and did great things then, they’ll go off and do great things now.
I think the quality of the students is pretty much the same as it has always been. They come with slightly different backgrounds but one can remedy that. They have skills that need polishing. We’re all here to learn, and if you go to college and you aren’t challenged you are wasting your money. It’s fun to watch somebody blossom and watch them do more and more sophisticated stuff.
TC: What do you believe is the most pressing issue facing the CC community today?
DH: Some of this is what’s fashionable. In earlier years it was “what makes a liberal arts education?” The pendulum has swung back now and we are once again considering that issue, deciding what the all-college requirements should be. Another one is diversity among the students and the faculty. There is a much stronger push now to include minorities who have not been included in the past and adapt to international students, more students of color, and with that comes an issue of ‘Alright, what in those backgrounds needs beefing up to be doing something at least consistent with what we have been doing in the past?’ Those are big problems and we’ll do our best to solve them. In a few years we will have done something and some other issue will be on the front burner of the stove and we’ll be thinking about that. I think school is always like that. If you don’t think of something that needs doing, someone else will, and so it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut would say.
TC: That’s interesting you mention Kurt Vonnegut. What sort of things have you been reading lately? Who are some of your favorite authors?
DH: Let’s see, the last book I read was by Anne Hillerman, Tony Hillerman’s daughter. It’s a murder mystery. She’s not her father, but she’s close enough that I’m willing to seek out her books. I’ve read all the Tony Hillerman stuff. When I read it I loved Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. I loved “Lord of the Rings” when it was out earlier. So that was fun.
My absolute passion is Carl Hiaasen, who is a journalist for the Miami Herald and writes a column. All his heroes are journalists for a major South Florida newspaper. He’s got the most wonderful wit. His good guys are journalists, his bad guys are really bad and really dumb and there’s no doubt about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. He’s got the craziest dialogue you’ve ever read. If you’ve not read a Carl Hiaasen story you’re just not—you’re just culturally deprived.
TC: Carl Hiaasen has a quote that says, “One problem with age is that patience begins to ebb.” What is your reaction to that quote?
DH: Say the quote again.
TC: “One problem with age is that patience begins to ebb.” That’s from Carl Hiaasen.
DH: That’s true. It begins to ebb but it doesn’t quite go away. One advantage of age is that you see that you still need patience, and that while it may be sometimes hard to bring it to bear, you know that if you don’t you’re going to lose the battle.
TC: One thing I think you are known for among students is your Baca classes. What is special about Baca and what value does it have for CC students?
DH: I love the place just because you can go down there and hear coyotes at night, see deer lying under the apple trees in people’s yards, you can hear elk bugle, you can see bear tracks, turned over dumpsters, and the like. There is wildlife all around. It’s got a wonderful, dark, night sky—that’s what attracted me at first. It’s also away from the organized chaos of our lives on campus; we always schedule ourselves up to just above our nostrils, or worse. Suddenly, at Baca, you’re at a place where there’s nothing to do and you can actually enjoy getting bored.
I can work the pudding out of students and they still have time to go for hikes, or go off to some spiritual place and spend an afternoon.
It’s a kind of time out of time, for the students and for me, because we don’t have all this other stuff that we have filled our lives with. It’s valuable for all of us to experience that and realize that we are overscheduled because we overschedule ourselves. We don’t have the sense to just say “no.”
TC: Do you have a favorite or formative block that you can pick out from recent years where you figured out something about students or your teaching practice?
DH: A class I taught that bonded tighter than any other class I’ve ever seen was an FYE, two blocks. Esteban Gomez from Anthropology and I taught the two blocks. The first block, we took a field trip to Ludlow, and then went on to Chaco Canyon, Chimney Rock, and Ignacio I think, and then came back home.
We went to Chaco in a pelting rain. It rained so hard that a stream overflowed the road into Chaco and held us up for awhile. We thought ‘we take the van across, the road crumbles under the van, van tumbles off the road, somebody drowns hanging from their seatbelt. You know, can we make it in?’ Then a string of cars and a semi came through and we said ‘screw it’ and went across. I have lots of pictures of students playing in this stream that was about calf-high or so. They were building sand castles and otherwise having a good time.
When we got back from that field trip, we unloaded the vans and everybody was ready to leave, could’ve left, but nobody wanted to leave the parking lot. We stood around out here next to the loading dock, making spirals of people, hugging each other, then unwinding, and we all just got very close, and sometime this year we’re going to have a class reunion and get together.
TC: Do you have any tips or wisdom that you could impart to students as we depart on our journeys?
DH: You’re more capable than you think you are. You are more powerful than you think you are, and you’re less confident in yourself than you should be. There are lots of people that will tell you that you are not quite good enough in this, that, or the other thing, and you should not listen to them. If you’re doing what you want to do, at least right now, you are doing the right thing. For people choosing majors, I always tell them ‘don’t double-major.’ Keep yourself as free from external demands as you can so that you can do the things you want to do while you’re here. You will never be as free again as you are for these four years. Keep in mind that when you get out your first job is not your last job. You may take some really pretty crappy jobs for awhile in exchange for the freedom to be a ski bum, or travel, or do whatever. You’ll find a way, you’ll find a path. Certainly among alumni, I know lots of alumni, they graduated from here and had a variety of jobs when they first started and wound up doing something very different from what they majored in and they’re happy as clams. The future is so open and you can plan for some of it, but some of it just happens to you, and you have to have the flexibility to go with the flow when you need to.
TC: The last thing I want to hear about is: there are many items in this room, could you tell me about one of them?
DH: [Points at a framed card picturing a golden retriever; see photo, right] Oh, that was almost the first year that I taught Electronics. I was so busy learning electronics myself, that I was not in the laboratory as much as some students would want me to be, including one who was dating a girl who was an artist for Loo Art, a Christmas card company. He had the idea of this thing—the campus was overrun with big dogs that shat a lot and nobody picked up after them. So what he painted was a golden retriever Dick Hilt with a capacitor symbol in the middle of it and the title is “Stray Capacitance.” That is, I was the capacitor that was not there. The holder of all the information they needed that wasn’t available. I thought it was very witty and I framed it and kept it. He’s now a lawyer, considering retiring and so on. He’s doing something very different.