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February 1, 2013

Hilltop mourns passing of its ‘King’ teacher

— Samuel Marc Hillard of Westmont, who ruled as “King Hillard” at Westmont Hilltop middle school and high school, died Wednesday at Memorial Medical Center. He was 74.

Hillard taught at the former Westmont Hilltop Junior High School and the current middle school from 1961 to 1999, concentrating on seventh-grade geography, said Sue Tower Povich of Johnstown, who taught eighth-grade literature at Westmont during the last two years before Hillard’s retirement.

“I’ve continued to get to know him since then,” Povich said. “He was Westmont’s cheerleader and would do anything for the district. He had such a love for helping kids. He really made an impact.”

Hillard received his royal title through his unconventional teaching methods.

When his seventh-graders created their own country for Hillard’s annual project, a failing grade meant the country would be conquered by “King Hillard the Great and Terrible.”

“He had the ultimate say-so on his country project,” Povich said.

Hillard was named to Who’s Who Among American Teachers in 1990, 1994, 1996 and 1998; and was Pennsylvania Geography Teacher of the Year in 1979 and Tribune-Democrat Person of the Week in 1995.

His dedication reigned outside his classroom as well. He spent many hours taking tickets, running the clock, working the concession stand and attending musicals, one-act plays, and choral, band and orchestra concerts.

Hillard served as equipment manager, assistant junior high wrestling coach, junior high newspaper adviser, student government adviser and on the Middle School Advisory Team.

He helped with Westmont’s indoor band and marching band from 1990 to 2012.

After retirement, Hillard continued to help with the band and his other activities.

The walls of his home were decorated by group photos of Westmont students at their various events.

Erik Bonini, one of Hillard’s former students who is now an advertising accounting executive at The Tribune-Democrat, said Hillard was like a grandfather to the school district.

“He was a very, very kind person,” Bonini said. “He encouraged people as much as possible to be as much as they could be. He went beyond the call of duty as a teacher.

“He was there all the time. Because he didn’t have any family locally, the district was his life.”

Bonini was in Hillard’s seventh-grade geography class and interacted with him when he played in Westmont’s band for two years.

“He always kept in touch,” Bonini said. “He sent encouraging cards to me all through college.”

Valerie Deater, assistant to the publisher at the Tribune-Democrat, said her two daughters came in contact with Hillard through the Westmont band in the 1990s. Deater described him as a great supporter of the band and band boosters.

“For any event, he was there from beginning to end,” said Deater, who belonged to the band boosters along with Hillard. “He helped to carry equipment to the field and was always dressed for the occasion in Westmont colors.

“Every Saturday morning during indoor and outdoor band season, there was a ‘happy ad’ in the paper from him. He traveled to band competitions in town and out of town.”

When Deater’s daughters went away to college, they also received cards from Hillard with gift certificates and quotes from “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” his favorite book, tucked inside.

Tom and Kathy Rohrabaugh of Westmont also knew Hillard through their children’s participation in the band.

“We became close when our three children started band in 2000,”  Kathy Rohrabaugh said. “After meeting people who knew him from when he first started, we saw that band was just a small speck of his life.

“He knew how to nurture friends, and he’s gotten well wishes from all over the country. He was a gentle, thoughtful guy.”

In addition to sending cards on birthdays and holidays, Hillard would send encouraging cards and emails to cheer up friends on a bad day.

His numerous happy ads for students became so well-known that some people knew of Hillard without ever having met him.

Tom Rohrabaugh was surprised by the number of past and present students who came to visit Hillard in the hospital.

“It was amazing,” he said. “He influenced a lot of lives.”

During his hospital stay, former students who  lived out of town and knew of his illness asked their parents to visit Hillard for them.

Hillard is survived by numerous nieces, nephews and friends.

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