First in his family to finish high school, Professor Rick Hillis exemplified a passion for literature and teaching throughout his life. Hillis, an associate professor of English at DePauw University, died unexpectedly in Texas on Oct. 8. He was 58.
His short story collection “Limbo River” won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the Silver medal from the Commonwealth Club of California. He was a Chesterfield Fellow at Universal Studios and he wrote a book of poetry, “The Blue Machines of Night.” At the time of his death, Hillis was on sabbatical, and completed revising two of his novel manuscripts.
At DePauw, he taught fiction writing, screenwriting, poetry and songwriting. He influenced students even in his absence this year.
Fifth-year student Carianna Arredonda remembered Hillis fondly. “Professor Hillis taught me, and many others, the art of storytelling and the heaviness of voice … Rick’s death is very hard hitting and I’m still at a loss of words,” she wrote in an email. “Rick has coached me as a writer for four years, and his voice asking, ‘but whose story is it?’ will carry itself in my work permanently.”
Born on Feb. 3, 1956, Hillis grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada. After high school graduation, he attended the University of Saskatchewan and earned his MFA at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University led him to a two-year teaching fellowship there, the Jones Lectureship.
The writer Russell Banks selected “Limbo River” out of 260 manuscripts for the Drue Heinz Prize. “A wonderful book … in the rarified company of the best of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff, without imitating any one of them. [Hillis] ... walks the crooked line that runs between farce and dead-on realism, where the truly awful turns abruptly into ridiculous, so that we end up laughing through our tears of rage.”
In “Limbo River,” Hillis wrote about the working class in his native Saskatchewan. Michael Harris wrote in a 1990 Los Angeles Times review, “Blue-collar workers and bums, alcoholics and artists, farm hands and nursing-home attendants, teachers and children struggle through a world where winters are long, money is short and dreams tend to come true only in dreams.”
Closer to home, Hillis’ neighbor Istvan Csicsery-Ronay remembered his colleague had little patience for the administrative duties that accompany being a college professor.
“He was completely devoted to his writing and to his students’ writing,” Csicsery-Ronay said. “Art and writing were the most important things in his life. He considered them sacred.”
Hillis also had a passion for songwriting and playing music in the community. Csicsery-Ronay calls Hillis an excellent, though perhaps too modest songwriter, and cited his “wonderful” CD as proof.
“He was a real purist,” he said. “He had a very high and clean concept of what music and songwriting should be.”
Barbara Bean, retired creative writing professor, spent many evenings playing music with Hillis and his wife, Emily Doak, a writer who teaches at DePauw.
“It was always a surprise which song he would play next because he knew so many,” Bean wrote in an email. “Half the time they were his own songs, and I don’t exaggerate when I say his were often the best.”
Arredondo first met Hillis in his musical first-year seminar, the Poetry of Song. She enjoyed the class so much, she took five other classes with him, including her senior seminar after choosing him as her advisor.
“Professor Hillis is extraordinary, in a very quiet, down-to-earth kind of way,” said Arredondo.
As a registered organ donor, Hillis successfully donated his heart and lungs.
Hillis is survived by his wife and two children, Cullen and Cassidy.
Editor's Note: The DePauw is honoring the family's wishes by not printing the cause of death.