Hillje and Guthrie Look Back On Last 45 Years at Rider

Monday, May 10, 2010

When Dr. John Hillje, associate professor of History, and Dr. William David Guthrie, professor of Teacher Education, began working in their respective departments in 1965, Rider was celebrating its 100th anniversary and its third president, Franklin F. Moore, was in office. At the same time, the United States, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, was expanding its military presence in Vietnam.

In fact, Hillje and Guthrie both vividly recall the student protests and faculty-run teach-ins that evolved as a result of the escalation of the Vietnam War and the American invasion of neighboring Cambodia in 1970. In fact, this unrest culminated 40 years ago this week with the student protests and subsequent shootings at Kent State University, Hillje recalled.

“The administration at Rider suspended classes during the last week of the semester, as did many schools across the country,” Hillje said. “Then, 1,500 students from Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) and Rider marched to the capital to protest the escalation of the war. The state government did not like the escalation, but they did not want to meet with the students.”

Of course, not all of Hillje and Guthrie’s recollections are as sobering as these, but Rider’s two longest-tenured faculty members recounted their experiences on the occasion of the annual Longtimers Reception on Wednesday, May 5, where Hillje and Guthrie were recognized for their 45 years of service to the University. Hillje is also retiring at the conclusion of the academic year with plans to return to San Antonio, Texas, where he was raised, and is looking forward to spending more time with his family and playing tennis.

Recently, the two colleagues shared their experiences at Rider during an informative Q&A for News@RIDER.

What were you doing before your arrival at Rider, and what led you to Lawrenceville?

Hillje: I was in graduate school at University of Texas at Austin, where I was student teaching.

I found out about the position at Rider through the American Historical Association. I took the train from my home in Texas to Washington, D.C., and brought a map of the U.S. with me. I wanted to work in a location which was within driving distance to a city of 100,000, and found that Rider had a perfect location because it was close to New York.

Guthrie: I had been working as the New Jersey State Supervisor of Mathematics for seven years. I visited schools and helped them with their curricula.

My office was in Trenton, where we hired a couple of people from Rider to read proposals. I was interviewing for a position at Trenton State College, but the commissioner, who was in charge, did not approve my appointment because he did not want to lose me. I quit without a job lined up. I wanted to move on and start teaching. I had a lively interest in physics and a dual interest in education. So the individuals we hired to read proposals suggested that I interview with Rider.

What department were you working in when you first began? What was different then at Rider?

Hillje: I was hired as a faculty member in the History department. Over time, I occasionally taught a history of journalism, where my background was. A long time ago, our department offered a course on the American Black Experience. I also taught a course about Irish, Italian and Jewish Americans. In the early 1970s, I recall there were plenty of Irish, Italian and Jewish Americans, as well as a large number of Anglo-Saxons, but over time, the student body has changed. Now there are an increasing number of first-generation students going to college. There’s a real transition.

Guthrie:  I had a joint appointment. I was teaching mathematics and physics in Liberal Arts half the time and teaching the other half in the School of Education. When I came here there was no Elementary Education department. There was only Business and Secondary Education, so I had two offices – one in Liberal Arts and the other in Education. It was difficult; I went to two department meetings and two school meetings.

I slowly became very active in campus affairs, and I eventually was appointed as an associate dean of graduate studies. At the time, there was no distinction between faculty and administration, so a lot of my experience has been in administration.

The physical view of the campus has also changed. There used to be a theater barn for the Fine Arts departments. Rider had its very own theater group.

Hillje: The faculty has also become far more diverse. I used to joke about how many people were from the other side of the Mississippi River.

Guthrie: Rider was really local. When you used to walk into Trenton, it was all white males. That has been a tremendous change. I can remember when schools in Trenton were segregated. Today’s campus is incredible. When I grew up here, all of this was a farm. That’s a big change. New Jersey used to be all farmland.

How did you become interested in your academic fields?

Hillje: I like math and started studying it at Rice Institute (now Rice University). It was my most difficult year. I was a sports editor at the school’s newspaper. I decided to transfer to Texas, in Austin, which has a great journalism school and I worked at the daily paper. I was taking an increasing number of history courses, including one about the Germans involvement before World War II.  I also had a great history instructor. I started to work on a master’s degree in History. As an undergraduate student, I took a couple of education courses. I worked on my doctoral degree and worked part-time as a graduate assistant. My specialties are in American Studies, Immigration, American Foreign Relations and Women in American History.

Guthrie:  My interests in education, mathematics and science began while I was teaching at Boy Scouts camp. In high school, I was a program director at a scout camp. I took an exam for admissions to Trenton State College and scored high in math and science. Since the college was still a teacher’s school, I also studied education. I taught science in a junior high school in Trenton before teaching physical science and math at Hopewell Valley Central High School.

Rider has given me and John the time and resources to explore our interests. I have been fortunate to be able to study the Lenape people, the people who used to live here.

Why do you think you have remained at Rider for so long?

Hillje: I like the students. I like my colleagues in the History department and the other departments.

Guthrie: It’s a friendly place. I have had so many jobs at Rider. There have been so many different opportunities that I never had to look outside of Rider to have a change. It’s been a very varied experience for me.

What advice would you have for faculty or staff members who are just starting out in their careers at Rider?

Hillje: My advice is for teachers to try to be knowledgeable about all subjects, be current and try to engage your students as much as possible. For instance, students are always fascinated to learn about Margaret Sanger and how she advocated for birth control (in the early part of the 20th century), so I try to tie that history into class.

Guthrie: I don’t think of it as job. I have a fairly extensive background in the Presbyterian religion, and the words that I have come live by are, ‘Think of it as a calling.’ It affects your whole life. Everything that you do should relate to your work. If you go on vacation, you should even find examples that you can call upon later in class.

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(left to right) Dr. John Hillje, associate professor of History, and Dr. William David Guthrie, professor of Teacher Education