Robert Webber Hill Jr., father of Williston Northampton head of school Robert W. Hill III and the Henry Norman Hudson Professor Emeritus of English at Middlebury College, died at his Weybridge home Tuesday evening, Jan. 28, 2014, one week after his 80th birthday.
Born in Wilmington, Del., he attended the Tower Hill School through the seventh grade, distinguishing himself as an eager math and science student, a relentless classroom questioner, and a fearless competitor in any sport or game he chose to play, all qualities he continued to display throughout his life. In the fall of 1947, he entered the second form (8th grade) of Westminster School, Simsbury, Conn., the boarding school from which he graduated magna cum laude, despite the reputation of being “the most slovenly student” the school had ever seen. He entered Harvard in the fall of 1952 and began to consider English as a major while maintaining his interest in the physical sciences. Bob weathered an almost disastrous sophomore slump at Harvard, righted himself with a characteristic surge of determination in his final two years, and emerged again magna cum laude.
He then served two years in the U.S. Navy aboard a minesweeper before returning to Harvard to complete his PhD. He taught for three years at Amherst prior to settling at Middlebury, where he taught English for 41 years.
Throughout his life, he retained his fascination with such subjects as quantum mechanics, black holes, asteroids, the human genome and big cats. These interests culminated in his book A Norton Critical Edition of “Tennyson’s Poetry” and led to the creation of courses at Middlebury combining George Eliot and Charles Darwin, and, of course, a favorite, “Monkeys, Cats and Black Holes” – all of which supplemented his teachings of Robert Frost, the Victorian novel and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.
Before buying a home in Weybridge, Bob lived first in Cornwall and then for 17 years in Starksboro, where he enjoyed the life of the land: keeping bees, planting peas and asparagus, chopping wood, and trading hay from his fields for maple syrup with his neighbor, Bub Thompson. Bob’s love of animals and children – “both see right through you” – was evident throughout his life, whether teaching his children and grandchildren to play cards or curled up with his cats and dog reading the New York Times. Always a practical joker, a savvy card player, and never one to turn down a martini – straight up with a twist – or shy away from telling a raunchy or completely inappropriate joke, Bob remained young at heart, unaffected by the usual decrepitude of an aging mind. He died suddenly after a full day of playing bridge with his close friends: “Because I could not stop for death-/He kindly stopped for me-/The Carriage held but just Ourselves-/And Immortality” (Emily Dickinson).
Bob remains cherished as a loyal friend and fiercely devoted father and husband, survived by his wife, Martha; and his four children, Lisa Nel, Robert W. Hill III, Catherine Hill, and Ruth Hill; and five grandchildren.