Charles Hill, diplomat in residence, lecturer in International Studies at Yale University and Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy, died on Saturday afternoon of complications relating to an infection.
When Hill came to Yale in 1992 — his wife, senior lecturer Norma Thompson, was a professor in the political science department — he already had a decorated record of foreign service. After graduating from Brown University and completing his graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he worked foreign service postings in Switzerland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Vietnam. Among other positions, he served as a policy advisor at the State Department, an advisor for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, political counselor for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, executive aide to Secretary of State George Shultz and an advisor to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 1992-1996 Secretary-General of the United Nations.
“Yalies would not have seen much of this elegant, well-dressed person, headed off to New York very early each weekday to work in the office of Boutros Boutros-Ghali,” Paul Kennedy, J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History, told the News.
Kennedy, along with Hill and John Lewis Gaddis — Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University — established the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy in 2000.
It was around this point that, according to Kennedy, Hill became not just an icon of foreign policy but a “legendary” figure within Yale itself. Gaddis said that, for Hill, teaching classes at Yale was “the most important thing he’d ever done in life, or could ever do.”
Hill taught history and political thought for over 20 years in Yale’s Directed Studies program, but was also known for creating seminars on topics he found interesting. One semester, Hill taught a class entitled “The Architecture of Power.” Another year, he created a course on “Baseball as Grand Strategy.” Most recently, he held a first-year seminar called “Intellectual Circles.” For a class taught specifically to alumni, he created a syllabus on the Mississippi River and how civilizations formed in riverbeds, solely because he found the topic fascinating, according to Andrew Lipka ’78.
Kennedy noted that, one semester, Hill decided to teach a class on Tibet and, when pressed as to why, he remarked that “no one’s taught on [the country] and it’s such an interesting area to teach about.”
Kelsang Dolma ’19, who advocated for the course when she was an undergraduate, recalled feeling frustrated with the lack of courses on Tibet and China. After a “serendipitous encounter” with some notes written by Hill on the topic, Dolma met with Hill a few times, after which Hill created “Tibet: An enduring Civilization.”
“My seemingly impossible dream came true,” Dolma wrote in an email to the News. “I unfailingly tear up whenever I think about how profoundly understood Hill made me feel as a student; a once in a lifetime act of kindness. Rest in peace to the best professor in the whole world.”
Along with his foreign policy service and frequent seminar inventions, Hill was also known for his openness to discussion and lack of preconceived notions.
Lipka recalls taking an expedited Directed Studies Course with Hill through an alumni program. While discussing the plague of Athens, Lipka disagreed with a classmate’s idea as to what caused the plague, and Hill challenged him to propose his own idea.
“That night, I stayed up all night, researched, wrote a short paper and presented,” Lipka said. “[Hill] read it, sat there seriously — he was always serious — looked at me and said, ‘You’ve done it.’”
Lipka still remembers how it felt to be taken seriously by Hill, despite being “just a student.”
Lily Weisberg ‘21 wrote in an email to the News that his ability to “waste no time on preconceived notions of anything” was “the core” what made him so special.
While Weisberg acknowledged that Hill was opinionated, it was these opinions that made his classes so engaging.
“I adored him,” Weisberg said. “I am so grateful to have known him. I will really miss him.”
Although Hill stopped teaching last year, he still went to his office every day — just around a month ago, he sent an email to Lipka reiterating that “everyone declares that I have retired, but I haven’t.”
Hill continued to go into his office until Sunday, March 21. On Tuesday, March 23 he was admitted to the hospital.
“So that pretty much means that he took one day off since he arrived in 1992,” Thompson said.
Molly Worthen ’03, Hill’s biographer for the book “The Man On Whom Nothing Was Lost,” was helping organize a retirement book alongside Justin Zaremby ’03 for Hill filled with tributes from students at the time of Hill’s death.
“It’s rather amazing that he agreed to cooperate with me on the project, considering that he gave me a C- on my first DS paper,” Worthen said.
The book, entitled “A Commonplace Book for Charles Hill,” will now be a memorial and is scheduled to be published this summer.
Madison Hahamy | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Mar. 29: Thompson was a professor in the political science department when Hill arrived at Yale in 1992. A previous version of this story said she was the associate director of the Whitney Humanities Center. The story has been updated.
Correction, Mar. 29: Originally, this story failed to mention Zaremby’s role in the retirement book. In addition, the story said the book would include tributes from students, professors and others. In fact, it will just include tributes from students. The story has been updated.
Correction, Apr. 1: Hill died of complications related to an infection, not pneumonia. The story has been updated.