Bill Hillis: A Creative, Fruitful Life

by Dr. William F. Cooper | January 14, 2019

There is an old story about a small, seemingly insignificant seed that was planted and then grew up yielding fruit abundantly and offering shelter for birds to build their nests and bring up their young. This story is a parable of Bill Hillis’ life, who along with his wife Argye, provided a nourishing context for those who came their way, helping them to find shelter and to live fruitfully and creatively. When you review their professional lives, you are amazed at their accomplishments and at the many places in the world where they sank down meaningful roots and created healthy life conditions in support of those with whom they worked. To be sure, they remained very busy.

In fact, Bill told me that the intensity of their schedules was such that on one occasion he and Argye happened to meet each other, by accident, in the airport in Chicago as they were changing flights. Neither knew the other was even scheduled to travel but here they ran into each other on one of their many professional journeys. They decided that from then on, they would at least find time to share their schedules so each would know where the other was going to be.

They lived in several places in the U.S. as well as in Europe, Africa and India, absorbing the history and culture of those places into their rich understanding of life and its many complexities. This in turn made their work and relationships more fruitful as they became more aware of cultural differences and the need for encouragement and support. Through all this, Bill’s work in Biology led to significant scientific discoveries which were widely recognized.

Another deeply appreciated creation on his part was the course he taught with Professors Kay Toombs and Ann Miller. This particular course brought together the disciplines of Philosophy, Literature and Biology. The interaction of these academic disciplines enhanced the learning experience of the students as well as the faculty. As part of the course work, each student would also explore through serious research a particular disease with attention not only to its chemical and biological dimensions but also to the psychological and social impact of the disease on the person. The impact of the course on the students was remarkable, creating a new understanding of human health and its impairment as well as a recognition of the crucial role of interdisciplinary learning in the educational experience. At the same time, students were introduced to the decisive role research plays in their learning as they focused in on the details of a particular disease.

This course became the foundation for the program in Medical Humanities at Baylor, a program which currently guides the academic careers of over two hundred students who plan to enter one of the healthcare professions.

Bill was also a deeply caring and compassionate person. During one of the semesters this course was taught, one of the class members perished in a car accident. Bill extended a healing care to the members of the class, helping them to cope with the grief this unexpected tragedy had brought their way.

Bill and Argye left the world a better place. The quality of their life investment created new redemptive dimensions in the places they lived and worked. Learning took on new horizons and fascinating depths as students probed the details of the recesses of life. The relationships Bill and Argye nourished brought added strength to their communal and professional bonds. Baylor University has become a more genuine learning community through the gifts they wove into our shared heritage.