When John W. Hill and Bob Kramer created the Seven Guys Book Club 10 years ago, Mr. Hill viewed it as an opportunity to quench his thirst for knowledge through non-fiction works. But when it came to fiction, Mr. Hill was left wanting more.
“He always wanted to be learning something when he read a book,” his wife, Catherine Mahan, said. “So he would read a fiction book that I would think is wonderful, and he would say, ‘What did I learn? Why did I read it?’ He ended up having to read the life of Keith Richards, and he said, ‘Why am I reading about The Rolling Stones?’ I said, ‘That’s what you do in a book club. You learn new things.’ So I think he bristled a little at that, but he appreciated it. It stretched him, and he liked that.”
Mr. Hill, the founding dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, died July 7 at Blakehurst Senior Living Community in Towson due to complications from a recent fall. He was 90.
Roger Lewis, a member of the architecture faculty who taught until he retired in 2006, hailed Mr. Hill as a unifying figure in a field with numerous competing influences that tended to divide architects and instructors alike.
“We all agreed that we weren’t there to teach a style of architecture, that we were there to teach critical thinking and to teach people about real needs of the clients and users of buildings and to think about the environment,” Mr. Lewis said. “It was John’s wisdom and insight that allowed us to create what I think was a very successful brand-new school of architecture. So that to me is his legacy, and that’s the legacy that matters.”
The youngest of three children of Army Col. Ira Benjamin Hill and the former Anna Storck, a homemaker, Mr. Hill was born in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but moved to Army outposts such as Fishers Island in New York, Fort Monroe in Virginia, and Fort Kamehameha in Hawaii. But the seemingly torturous ordeal of packing and unpacking did not bother Mr. Hill because of all three destinations were adjacent to oceans, according to Ms. Mahan.
“For a little kid, he just thought it was the greatest life,” she said from her home in Towson. “He got to go from one wonderful spot to another.”
After graduating in 1951 from Rice University in Houston, Texas, with a bachelor’s in architecture and serving four years with the Navy ROTC until his discharge as a lieutenant in 1955, Mr. Hill taught architecture at Louisiana State University and the University of Kentucky.
In 1967, Mr. Hill began what would mark a 15-year tenure as the inaugural dean of the state of Maryland’s first school of architecture. Ms. Mahan said her husband jumped at chance to be dean.
“It was the job of a lifetime,” she said. “He thought it was a dream job. I think it’s because he was able to build a school and a faculty from the ground up and he was able to realize his own vision of what architectural education should be.”
Mr. Lewis said Mr. Hill emphasized to the faculty the importance of serving the students. Despite being the dean, he continued to teach courses and make himself available for advice.
Mr. Lewis said Mr. Hill also stressed equality among the professors. He insisted on installing a round conference table so that no one could sit at the head of a rectangular one. And when an unidentified group of students protesting President Richard M. Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia in 1970 threw a Molotov cocktail through a window that burned several of the architecture school’s classrooms, Mr. Hill and eight other instructors agreed to take up overnight shifts to protect the building from further damage.
Mr. Lewis said Mr. Hill had the right temperament for the position.
“The thing about being a dean is that it’s a no-win job,” he said. “No one walks into your office to tell you what a good job you’ve done. If they cross that threshold to your office, it’s to tell you that this fire needs to be put out or to unload on you all of their problems. But John was extremely good at coping with these kinds of mini-crises and inevitable problems that come up related to students and faculty and so forth. He was very steady at the helm, and he was always very diplomatic.”
Mr. Hill married the former Carol Wheeler, whom he met at Rice, in 1952 and raised four children with her until their divorce in 1970. When his daughter Lucy married Nicholas Jenks on Sept. 12, 1976, he met Ms. Mahan, who is Mr. Jenks’ cousin and was a graduate student at the University of Virginia at the time before eventually becoming a landscape architect and founder of Mahan Rykiel Associates Inc. in Baltimore.
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“He was very tall and good looking,” Ms. Mahan recalled of her husband, whom she married in 1978. “To meet somebody who was interested in the same profession – I was in landscape architecture and he was in architecture – it was really a wonderful combination of thinking that he was a really attractive guy, but we also had so much that we shared.”
Besides reading, Mr. Hill enjoyed leading Boy Scout Troop 35 and starting their Venture Crew, a co-ed teenage scout group that enjoyed the outdoors. He also painted and traveled, especially to the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
Mr. Hill also loved to ski, taking an annual trip to Salt Lake City in Utah with Mr. Lewis and two other friends from the architecture school. Mr. Lewis recalled one night when Mr. Hill filled a dishwasher in their two-bedroom condominium with the wrong soap.
“All of a sudden, we saw this wave of froth creeping into the living room,” Mr. Lewis said with a laugh. “… We had to attack it. We’re talking about a ball of foam that’s three or four feet wide and three or four feet high. So watching these four professors try to corral this ball of foam was hysterical.”
Mr. Hill was cremated, and his remains will be buried at sea by the U.S. Navy. A memorial service will be held at the Church of the Redeemer at a later date.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Hill is survived by four daughters, Lucy Hill of Catonsville, Robin Hill of Woodland, California, Orissa Linker of New Market, and Annie Hill of Brooklyn, N.Y., two sons, Eriksson Hill of Elkton and Wilson Hill of Elkton, and eight grandchildren.