Gerry Hill

25 August 2021
Gerry Hill

Gerry J.C. Hill, age 87, died on August 20 in San Francisco. Gerry taught Biology at Carleton for 28 years, beginning as an assistant professor in 1971 and retiring in 1999 as the Towsley Professor of Biology. His great enthusiasm for science, his kindness and care for his colleagues and students, and his great sense of humor continue to shape Carleton and the many lives he touched.

Gerry cherished his students, the Biology department, and the college. He poured his time and energy into creating the Biology Department of today: offering a diverse range of classes, hiring aimed at staying abreast of new advances in biology, helping to design Hulings Hall, and fostering a culture of research that has provided many opportunities for students. A botanist, Gerry’s research focused on the chemical communications systems in non-vascular plants, especially algae. He spent many hours in his lab filled with bubbling test tubes of algae, making sure they got just the nutrients they needed. Gerry received National Science Foundation and U.S. Health and Human Services grants for cooperative research along with Chemistry faculty and students from both departments.

Gerry volunteered in Northfield with the Human Rights Commission and LGBT youth programs. He kept active in his retirement with homeless youth programs in San Francisco and won community service awards in both cities. 

You can read an obituary that Gerry drafted himself. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

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  • 2021-08-26 14:52:54
    Stephen Dahl

    Gerry was my mentor and my friend. I learned so much from my time with him. Biology, of course, but also lessons of life and love, dedication and spirit. I will forever be indebted to his kindness, his wisdom, and his wonderful sense of humor. He touched the lives of so many Carls. How fortunate that I was one of them.

  • 2021-08-26 15:04:50
    Ben Stiegler

    Gosh, Jerry - we were neighbors here in the Bay Area for the last 22 years and I never knew it. Thanks for your inspiration, contagious energy, teaching and advising excellence, and community service. I was a snobby biologist who thought animal life was way more interesting than plants during my Carleton years … wish I had spent more time with you. Rest well.

  • 2021-08-26 15:11:47
    Muriel Cunningham

    I am greatly saddened to hear of Gerry's passing. I learned so much working in his laboratory, and he was a great mentor post-Carleton. His sharp wit and incredible laugh will always stay with me. Truly one of a kind who made the world a better place.

  • 2021-08-26 15:21:43
    Gerald Simonich

    I am saddened by the death of this great person. Gerry took an interest in me early on during my studies at Carleton. Besides being an intellectual, he was non-judgmental, accepting, inquisitive, kind, and funny! He was supportive and helped me build confidence in my capabilities. I was fortunate to work with him as a TA and enjoyed his banter and way of answering a question with a question forcing me think through to find the answer. He was an excellent educator and a fantastic human being. He is missed.

  • 2021-08-26 15:43:35
    Jesse Brunner

    Gerry was a terrific teacher and mentor and an all around great person! I think of him often when I'm teaching biology, especially how he used to wave his arms around when impersonating a Chlamydomonas. I now do the same, only with Daphnia, for my own memory and delight. Gerry, your memory will live on thanks to all those who's lives you made better.

  • 2021-08-26 15:47:04
    Mike Lynch

    Gerry was one of my favorite people during my time at Carleton. He was thoughtful, kind, possessed great integrity and as a consequence of those characteristics was a wonderful teacher. I will miss his enthusiasm and his delightful ability to put life and science in perspective for me and so many others.

  • 2021-08-26 16:10:06
    Allison Kirschenmann

    Gerry was a wonderful mentor at Carleton and friend later in life when we reconnected. His course in microscopy and assistance with my research project in Rich Wong's lab were high points in my time at Carleton. It feels like yesterday that he walked me through the finer points of histology, scanning, and transmission microscopy and he helped me become the scientist I am today. Although I strayed into neurology my heart is still with Gerry in cell biology.

  • 2021-08-26 16:15:59
    Kate Scherer

    Gerry had the most wonderful laugh and was so much fun! He was a great teacher, mentor and friend. I really appreciated his support and he was so kind even when my Oedogonium project was not going well. His legacy and impact on the world will be long lasting.

  • 2021-08-26 17:29:57
    Karin (Knutson) Klein

    Gerry's interest in and commitment to students outside the classroom was an eye-opener for me. I remember fondly some rousing conversations about Godel, Escher and Bach over dinners in the dining hall on campus. And as an educator myself, I have often recalled how he forcefully claimed the hour before a class to prepare his thoughts and himself for teaching - a commitment to the sanctity of the profession that I strive to emulate. My impression was that he'd stop at nothing to assure that learning was happening. He was one of the great teachers of my life.

  • 2021-08-26 18:23:12
    Michael Philipson

    Although I was a Biology major, I took far more classes in French and struggled through some of the harder sciences. But Gerry Hill was always there with a laugh and an encouraging word. He had a joy for living and studying the processes of that life in all its wonders. And he encouraged that sense of wonder in so many others. I ran into him years later in San Francisco and we had a good laugh about all of it. Rest in Peace, dear teacher.

  • 2021-08-26 18:33:01
    Tim Collyer

    Gerry was to me, like so many, a mentor and an inspiration. Gerry educated me in aquatic biology and cell biology and he inspired me with humor, charisma, and the reassurance that being different can not only be ok but delightful. I did not keep in touch with Gerry after I left Carleton, to my regret. He is one of those figures in life that touched and shaped me far more than I was ever able to tell him. Thank you Gerry, for the influence you have had on who I am in life. I will continue to miss you.

  • 2021-08-26 20:32:27
    ray bourey

    Advisor, scientist, fellow alumnus of the old Stewart Hotel, excellent mechanic, and all-around good guy, who set high standards in science and life.

    Two quotes from Gerry:
    1. (While smoking) "I'm a fair weather runner - of course that's easier to do in Northfield than Berkeley."
    2. (On meeting my parents) "Thank you for loaning us your son for 4 years...." (Followed by the usual litany of "hard work and contributions to the community")

    I have used variations of this last line in my own work through the years to good effect.

    As with all good teachers, Gerry lives on in his students and students' students....

  • 2021-08-26 20:38:18
    Jason Brune

    One of the best teachers I’ve ever had. One of the greatest people I’ve ever known. May he rest in God’s peace.

  • 2021-08-26 21:21:06
    Susi Votruba

    Gerry was my major advisor at Carleton. Loved having him as a professor and remember learning the scanning electron microscope from him. My favorite memory of him, however, was when he came to the Carleton snack bar while I was working a shift. He had just come from the post office and was excited to tell me he just received a new CD - from Greenday. He'd never actually heard the band's music but had heard of them!

  • 2021-08-26 22:04:44
    Carrie Lee

    I have wonderful memories of biology classes with Gerry. I loved when he would get on a roll telling animated stories. I think I am accurately attributing this one to him. The topic was soil composition- proportion loam, sand, etc. he shared how in grad school he or his roommate or together as a group after learning about the ideal soil composition 60% this, 20% that etc. They had dug up their entire front yard of home they rented and mixed up the precise combination for ideal soil. Then it promptly turned as hard as concrete! : )

    His aquatic biology class was my first “real” bio class after intros that got me hooked on ecology and forced me to really understand how systems work together and why and test our understanding. The best part was the field trips to Fairbault taking samples on the lake on a pontoon boat. I can remember an afternoon being caught in a thunderstorm squall and not being able to see the shore of just the small lake. He took us to his favorite random spots for snacks on the way home popcorn and root beer at a cowboy bar place, ice cream at the truck stop…. He was a character. Gerry retired after my sophomore year, but I was so grateful to him help shape my bio major experience.

  • 2021-08-26 22:46:57
    Louise Latterell ‘91

    Gerry J. Hill
    The G written in classic loopy cursive fashion that kids these days would struggle to dissect.
    With the dark blue car (a Volvo I think)
    Best. Laugh. Ever. I’m not even sure what we were laughing about. I showed up at Gerry’s office during freshman week because he was my advisor. There was science happening there. But mostly we laughed.
    Later he would hatch plans with his buddy Bill Titus for the cockroach races. Or introduce us to the Phantom TollBooth, and take a car load of students (was it for Cell Hell?) out for ribs (was it in Dundas?) Teaching me how to drive stick shift in the More 4 parking lot with it’s very slight incline (I did not achieve Gerry Hill level use of my parking break to stop rolling backward. But it was pretty funny to compare that incline to the hills of San Francisco.)
    Intensely personal, ever elegant in an understated way, committed to science and students, and that #$% electron microscope with it’s forking glass blades/microtomes. And slime molds. And being on time. Perhaps the latter was only evident due to my propensity for lateness. How he might end a story or accentuate a point by turning to the side so you’d see his face in profile, hair wafting up in it’s natural pompadour, and he’d walk off in that direction. And I’d be like oh, we’re done laughing. I appreciated that you always believed in me, Gerry. You left a big family behind.

  • 2021-08-27 05:39:50
    Maureen Tumulty Neihart '78

    I never took a class from Gerry, but remember him well anyway. That says something, doesn't it? He was kind, open, welcoming, good humored, and passionate about algae. What stood out, though, was the way he cared about his students. He got to know them personally, included them in his work, encouraged their own research, and was always nonjudgmental. A friend worked closely with him for several summers - not because he was a biology major, but because Gerry was so much fun. He will be missed.

  • 2021-08-27 08:05:05
    Meredith Thomsen

    I fondly remember taking a plant biology class that Gerry co-taught with Susan Singer. He was a creative and enthusiastic teacher and took great joy in his work. That man was downright gleeful about algal development - and yeah, the laugh! Rest In Peace Gerry.

  • 2021-08-27 08:44:09
    Robin Walsh ‘86

    So sorry to learn of his passing. He was one of my two favorite biology professors (the other was Ross Shoger.) He gave me the opportunity to work in his lab for a summer which is one of the best things I’ll remember from Carleton. He taught me the importance of “s/he who hesitates is lost”. And those who knew him will always remember his laugh, sense of humor and boundless enthusiasm. He’ll be missed by many.

  • 2021-08-27 13:37:07
    Nancy Johnston '92

    Gerry was the ideal Carleton professor. He loved his students. He had high standards and expected great things from us. We strived to meet his expectations. I often failed, but I kept trying. And I felt like he was always encouraging me to do better. Working in his lab one summer was definitely one of the best experiences of my time at Carleton. I think I made science my life's work because of him. Thank you, Gerry , for your friendship and mentorship.

  • 2021-08-28 06:52:49
    Dana Dudle ‘93

    Gerry was my first college biology instructor. He helped solidify my love for the subject, and inspired me to emulate his enthusiasm for cells, for teaching, for students, and for life in general. Staying up all night making onion tip root slides in lab for Gerry’s Cell Biology course in 1994 remains one of my best memories— it was way more fun than it sounds. He was a role model in all kinds of ways, and I am grateful that our paths crossed.

  • 2021-08-28 11:51:12
    James Haynes '73

    One of my favorite courses at Carleton was Algal Ecology taught by Gerry in the fall of my senior year. Learning from him how to identify freshwater algae was a great skill to have during my subsequent career as a professor of fisheries and aquatic ecology. I will remember Gerry fondly as a young, enthusiastic teacher with a great sense of humor who will be missed by his former students.

  • 2021-08-28 14:40:13
    Gene Gallagher '76

    Gerry Hill was one of the most influential teachers I’ve ever had. I first got to know Gerry at the Bermuda Biological Station in Winter 1974. His good friend, and another tremendous teacher Gary Wagenbach, had flown Gerry in to deliver lectures and labs on marine algae to our Carleton class of 22 students. We were the only two who smoked: Gerry smoked Parliaments; I smoked Marlboros. He was a phenomenal teacher. When I returned to Carleton, I took his aquatic ecology class and spent many hours studying Chaoborus larvae from the muds of Dudley Kelly Lake. During Summer of ‘75, I spent the summer with Gerry working with him in his old advisor’s (Leonard Machlis) lab at the UC Berkeley Botany department on Allomyces and sirenin, the first fungal sex hormone. What an experience; the work day would stop in mid-morning and mid-afternoon for tea and discussion at a large table. What an intellectual hotbed. Gerry loved Berkeley and the Botany department from his graduate student days and loved showing off Berkeley and telling its stories. He took me to my first national scientific meeting, where I could join the gatherings of the Berkeley Botanists. When I started teaching at UMass Boston, I modeled my ecology classes after Gerry’s and Gary’s critical approach. In Aquatic Ecology, Gerry had assigned G. E. Hutchinson’s “The Paradox of the Plankton” and asked us to criticize it, and one student asked, “Who the hell am I to criticize G. E. Hutchinson?,” but Gerry loved discussing & criticizing ideas, even G. E. Hutchinson’s. When I described to Gerry the tremendous teaching of my AP Biology teacher Jim Cusker at Missoula Sentinel High and expressed my sadness that he was wasted teaching high school biology, Gerry strongly disagreed. He said that Cusker was having more influence than he ever would. He said that Carleton students were brilliant and would excel and learn biology from even average professors, but he felt Jim Cusker was making a much larger contribution because he would be the last influence on generations of students and affect how they viewed nature. Gerry and Gary influenced how I view nature and how I teach. He was a great teacher.

  • 2021-09-12 18:49:46
    Bill Allen '77

    Nearly 20 years after I had graduated from Carleton, I was working at the Science Museum of Minnesota, tasked with creating an auditorium-scaled presentation about insects for visiting school groups. How to engage kids about tiny "bugs" that could not be seen well in a cavernous space? I decided to start the show with slides of insects taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM) - spooky stuff that would be attention-grabbing. I called Gerry - did he have images I could use (not subject to copyright)? He said no - but invited me to come down and take my own photos on Carleton's SEM - he would show me how to use it. We spent several late nights in the basement of Olin and I struggled to properly prepare the dead creatures for photos. One night, Gerry told me to go home - he would finish the prep. Later, when I succeeded in getting great images of fly compound eyes and cricket legs, Gerry donated the Polaroids I had used to get the photos. Astonishingly generous of his time and materials. Thank you, Gerry. You impressed me that Carleton remains a family for alums even long after graduation. I feel as if a family member has passed - and he is greatly missed.

  • 2021-10-25 12:20:43
    Mindy Bell, '80

    I think of you drifting on a beautiful lake. Thank you for all you taught me and so many others. I'll happily tow your plankton net in the next life, catching wondrous creatures and sharing with others.

  • 2021-12-16 11:49:46
    Kathleen Torkko, '78

    Prof Gerry JC Hill had a huge impact on my life that echoed through the years after Carleton. I was focused on zoology and neurobiology for my biology major, but had to take a botany class. I chose "Non-vascular plants" taught by Gerry. Because of that class and Gerry's engaging teaching style, I followed an algal path after graduation. I attended the marine botany summer course at University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories. Then I received a Japanese Educational Ministry (Monbusho) scholarship for graduate research in Japan and completed a masters from the Tokyo University of Fisheries. My thesis was on the growth and maturation of Laminaria japonica (a brown seaweed) in Tokyo Bay. This was a far cry from my original undergraduate plans. Such was the impact of Gerry in my life. My favorite memory and an illustration of his special humor: I handed Gerry my final paper for graduation for an independent study I did with him. He took it, said "thank you" and turned to go back into his office. I asked, "Is that it? This is my final requirement before I graduate. Where are the ringing bells and fireworks to celebrate?" He looked at me, disappeared into his office, and returned with the paper sack that had contained his lunch. He blew up the bag like a balloon and then popped it, creating a lovely little boom. That was the best graduation gift ever! Thank you, Gerry.

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