my faculty experience

Hilary Cleveland's 50 Years of Teaching, and Making, History

On the last day of classes in her 50th year of teaching, with a fierce snowstorm bearing down on campus, Professor Hilary Cleveland was determined to put her students to work. Once the students had all shuffled in, wet and cold, with a couple of hardy souls in shorts and T-shirts, the professor began a whirlwind review of American history, 1877 to the present.

"What themes have you discovered that run through all of our history?" asked Professor Cleveland, a diminutive yet formidable presence standing before the class. Matt, sitting in back in his basketball uniform, called out "Racism!" to which she responded, "Good!" and began peppering him with questions about post-Civil War racism.

When Matt declined to elaborate, she moved onto one student after another, tossing out queries and clues to jog their memories and filling the gaps with her impressive depth of knowledge.

The class identified racism in the Ku Klux Klan's sabotage of the 14th amendment's guarantee of equal protection for all races, in the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese workers from entering the U.S., and in the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

They thought racism played a role in the pivotal Supreme Court's "separate but equal" doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson, and most recently, contributed to the poor response to the plight of African-Americans in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly, Professor Cleveland turned to a student and asked pointedly, "Brei, do you think racism will ever stop?" The student didn't hesitate: "It will never stop."

In the course of an hour, Professor Cleveland moved the class through other themes in modern American history— technological innovation and the rise to global power— gently prodding and cajoling every student to take part in the discussion. In the process, she engaged the students in a quick review of an entire semester of material in advance of their final exam.

"The way I teach is to throw questions out to see what students know, and then fill in the gaps. I realized early on that I didn't want to be up there lecturing," Professor Cleveland explains.

By involving students and connecting historical events and issues to the recent past and present, she seeks to help students digest the material more readily and understand history's relevance to their lives. This semester, for example, she discussed the important role of free speech in a democracy, drawing parallels between the Vietnam War era and the current conflict in Iraq.

"I keep trying to pound it into them that it was students who led the protests," she says, "and students who eventually helped to bring about political change."

Andrew "Pils" Pilsbury '07, an exercise and sport sciences major with a strong interest in history, enjoyed his first class with Professor Cleveland last semester. She engaged students by asking them to use sources beyond the text to research topics from every chapter and then present key points and concepts in class, according to Pils. She also asked students to subscribe to Newsweek magazine for the class to stay well informed about current events.

"It's interesting to learn from her since she was alive for most of the events that we talked about and she can relate to them in a personal sense," Pils adds.

"I loved my American history course with her," says nursing major Zoe Morton '07. "I really feel like she involves everyone in her class because she wants to share her knowledge of the subject. She got people to speak out in class, ask questions and give their own opinions."

Professor Cleveland's effectiveness in the classroom stems in part from her own curiosity and passion for knowledge.

"I love teaching because I love learning: learning from my research, learning from my colleagues and mostly learning from my students," she says. "I love seeing young minds open up to new ideas, new information and new ways of thinking. I love being challenged by doubters, students with different points of view and dreamers with new visions."

Her Early Life

Professor Cleveland grew up as Hilary Paterson in Andover, N.H., in a family of immigrant parents. With a Canadian mother and an English father, her household was often filled with international relatives and friends. Hilary developed a passion for political science and history and eventually attended Vassar College, which offered a new interdisciplinary major that combined her two areas of interest with economics. For graduate school she went to Switzerland, where she attended the University of Geneva's Institute of International Relations.

"I wanted to go into diplomatic government service in international relations, and Geneva was the obvious place to go because the [former] League of Nations was located there," she recalls. While there, she visited The Hague in the Netherlands to study at the international court.

Her thesis focused on the continental shelf as a potential territorial boundary in international law. She returned to the United States in 1950, and soon after met James Colgate Cleveland, a New Hampshire lawyer and World War II veteran who was running for the state senate.

"Neither of us was too impressed at first," she says with a laugh. They married later that year and moved into the farmhouse she continues to live in today on New London's Main Street, which had been the Cleveland family's summer home. Soon, Jim was called back to military service and she accompanied him to Germany, where he was stationed during the Korean War and where the couple had their first child.

The Clevelands returned to their New London home in a few years, and there the family grew from one to five children. Hilary wanted some help with the children, but knew she'd have to work to afford it. She approached Dr. James D. Squires at Colby Junior College about a teaching position.

"Dr. Squires was writing a history of New London and teaching six days a week, and he was very pressed. He had no full time job for me, but he did let me teach his Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday class in international relations part time," she says.

"I would attend his Monday, Wednesday and Friday classes, listen to his lectures, and then basically teach the same thing. He was very organized and always had three major points and three subheadings. It was a wonderful experience."

The next year, in 1955, Hilary Cleveland joined the faculty full time. The students were all women who dressed formally in blazers and woolen skirts. "It wasn't like today, where a student has come to my 8:30 class in pajamas," she recalls. Students were required to take courses in foreign language, English, science, social studies and fine arts.

"I've always had excellent students, and I've always had poorly prepared students. I can't really generalize and say there's a big difference," she says. "But I can say the students were more conscientious then. They would never think of coming to class not having read their assignments.

"It's interesting; the faculty were also held in higher esteem by students then," she adds. "It was not likely that a student would challenge the faculty."

Over the years, Professor Cleveland has covered a lot of ground in her courses. She's taught a variety of courses in international relations and government, a course in the U.S. presidency and another on the breakup of the Soviet Union. She's also taught history— English, American, Far Eastern and Russian.

"My husband was elected to the U.S Congress in 1962, and everyone assumed I knew everything about government," she recalled. "I actually had to do a lot of learning over the years. That's the most interesting part of teaching."

A Life in and about Politics

While Hilary Cleveland did not pursue her original plan of diplomatic service, her adult life has, nevertheless, swirled around politics, government and public service. The spouse of a nine-term U.S. congressman, she has met every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, danced with Lyndon B. Johnson and befriended George H.W. and Barbara Bush.

"It was interesting to be close to and on top of current issues. Obviously, being married to a member of Congress, I was privy to many of the debates that might not have been covered by the media," she explains. "I also traveled throughout the 2nd Congressional District of New Hampshire and made many new friends. I campaigned for Jim and often represented him at political events."

Some of the highlights of those days included invitations to the White House and attendance at presidential inaugurations and party conventions, and all the political insights these occasions conferred.

"I liked meeting new people and learning about the successes and failures of government policy," she adds, "but I disliked the political attacks against Jim and other elected officials, and I disliked the fact that Jim was away from home five days a week."

President Ronald Reagan appointed Hilary Cleveland to serve on the National Advisory Council on Continuing Education, and she became the finance chair for George Bush Sr.'s primary campaign in New Hampshire and later served under the first President Bush as commissioner of the International Joint Commission on the U.S. and Canada.

She also campaigned for George W. Bush's presidential bid in 2000, but has since become a vocal opponent of his administration.

Of her appointed positions, Professor Cleveland says she applied for the jobs, but she's pragmatic about why she was given them.

"I'm sure I was appointed because of my husband's position as a congressman, my activities as a member of the Republican party (three times elected as a delegate to the party convention), and the fact that I was a woman and from the state of New Hampshire (first-in-the-nation primary)," she says.

"I felt that I made my greatest contribution as one of three U.S. commissioners on the International Joint Commission on the U.S. and Canada. I had diplomatic status, had to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate and fulfilled my earlier dreams of serving in the international arena."

In New Hampshire, Professor Cleveland has served as president and trustee of the New Hampshire Historical Society and, in New London, was a founding member of both the local League of Women Voters and Adventures in Learning, an educational program for adults. Professor Cleveland served as New London's town moderator for 18 years, for which she moderated town meetings and ensured that elections proceeded in an orderly way.

"Government functions marvelously well in New London," she says. "It's very civil and people respect each others' opinions and appreciate the work that our local selectmen and state and local representatives do."

In recent years, Professor Cleveland attracted national media attention when she, always a staunch Republican in a largely conservative state, publicly criticized the current Bush administration for its "preemptive war policy and fiscal irresponsibility."

In Bush's re-election bid, she threw her support behind one of his Democratic challengers, Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor. When Dean backed out of the race, she supported the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, and briefly took on a leadership role in the New Hampshire's GOP Women for Kerry Steering Committee.

"I'm just enough of a Republican that I still believe in fiscal responsibility. This [Bush] administration is fiscally irresponsible," she says. "I'm enough of a Democrat that I've been against this war in Iraq from the beginning. I see no end in sight.

"The American people are losing confidence in this administration, and the world is looking at the U.S. in a very critical way. There seems to be very widespread and deep-seated mistrust of our policies."

Professor Cleveland recalls another time, not so long ago, during the Vietnam War, when the nation was similarly divided, its international reputation in shambles.

"We did recover our reputation after Vietnam, but it took a long time," she explains. Of the outcome in Iraq, she laments, "I couldn't predict what might happen."

In the next presidential election, she plans to stay engaged in the action. "I don't imagine myself sitting on the sidelines," she says simply.

In December, during Colby-Sawyer's holiday party for faculty and staff, the college honored Professor Cleveland for her 50 years of distinguished service as a faculty member. As she approached the podium, her colleagues gave her a sustained standing ovation.

Academic Vice President Deborah Taylor read a proclamation that recognized Professor Cleveland's accomplishments and contributions— as a gifted and passionate teacher, committed public servant and thoroughly fine human being. She then read quotes from students and alumni about how this professor's knowledge and passion had inspired and influenced their lives.

Although Professor Cleveland officially retired in 1991, and could choose to enjoy a comfortable and quiet retirement, instead she returns to teaching every fall.

"Each year, she asks whether we are sure we still want her to teach for us," said Taylor. "Each year, students insist that they love her classes and, most of all, her. So the answer now and always is, ÔYes, Hilary, we still want you to teach for us.' Thanks for spending half a century at Colby-Sawyer."

-Kimberly Swick Slover

Flashback to 1955

by Deborah Taylor

When Hilary Cleveland first came to teach at Colby Junior College in the spring of 1955, her courses included "The Growth of the United States" and "The European Foundations of Modern Civilization." Winston Churchill had just resigned his post as prime minister of Britain, and the Warsaw Pact was signed.

The Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series, and James Dean died in a car accident, ending a brief but meteoric film career. People were beginning to read James Baldwin's newly published Notes of a Native Son. Toward the end of Hilary's first semester, Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and the U.S. began sending aid to a small country that many Americans knew little about: Vietnam.

On campus, our first president, H. Leslie Sawyer, had just retired, and Eugene Austin began a seven-year presidency. Best Hall had been built and dedicated the previous year. Five-hundred-thirty-eight students were enrolled, and each paid a total of $1,800 per year in tuition, room and board fees.

The liberal education program included requirements in English communication, physical education, and experiences in the five liberal arts divisions: Science and Mathematics; History and Economics; Expression and Appreciation; Literature and Language; and Personal and Social Adjustment.

What Her Students Say...

  • "Throughout all of my years of education, never have I had the privilege to learn from such a knowledgeable individual as Professor Cleveland. Her ability to engage students through her real life experiences and in-depth knowledge of everything from early American history to current events made me look forward to her class. Having the chance to learn from Professor Cleveland has been easily the best experience I have had while attending Colby-Sawyer College." -Brian Skoczenski '06

  • "Hilary's knowledge and passion in government and politics made me believe that I could make a career in the tumultuous world of American politics. To this day, I take to heart (her) teachings and count Hilary as one of the best professors at the college. The Colby-Sawyer community has benefited greatly from Hilary's presence on campus." -Chris Quint '98

  • "Hilary Cleveland has been a wonderful asset to Colby-Sawyer. Many of my fondest memories found me sitting captivated in the front row of one of her classes. I remember arriving on campus for the first time in September 1996 not knowing what to expect, as I was not much of a student during high school. One of my very first classes was Government 101 with Professor Cleveland. I was intrigued by her teaching style and firm command of the subject matter. She forced me to think outside the box and approach the topic from different avenues. I took as many classes as I could with Professor Cleveland. Hilary, thank you for your part in shaping this once disinterested student into who I am today. For that, you will forever be in my thoughts." -Justin Hersh '00

  • "Mrs. Cleveland was a force of nature. With her bright blue eyes, sharp wit and infectious smile, she made history come alive for me when I was 18 years old in the early 1970s. She was, and continues to be, one of my favorite role models." -Sally Williams Cook '74

  • "I graduated from Colby Jr. College in 1959 and am so thankful to be brought up to date on the life of this amazing woman. Always positive and full of energy, and with such a natural talent for teaching, and a rich knowledge of and passion for her beloved subject matter, she never made you feel uncomfortable, and always kept things simple. My hat is off to her." -Nan Nielsen Williams '59