I saw the news on Facebook and it hit me like a ton of bricks. One of my high school classmates had posted an obituary for Jack Hiller, a history teacher at our school. “Killer” Hiller earned his nickname because he was a tough teacher, but during his American History class my junior year I discovered it probably stuck mostly because it rhymed.
“Killer” Hiller (far right) was one of the hardest but best teachers I had.
Mr. Hiller was tough in class but he’s one of those teachers you look back and appreciate because he made you better. He’s the one who taught me how to write a research paper and gave me an incredible extra credit assignment that sent me exploring the architecture of Old Town Alexandria, walking in the footsteps of our country’s founding fathers. Those and other assignments taught me the value and reward of hard work, gave me confidence in my abilities, and made me a better student and a better person.
Mr. Hiller was also the yearbook advisor so I got to know him better my senior year when I was the copy editor. In my senior yearbook profile, I listed myself as a member of the “J.H. Fan Club” as did the rest of the yearbook staff. After my freshman year in college I couldn’t wait to return to high school to tell Mr. Hiller that I’d been selected to be the editor of my college yearbook as a sophomore. He smiled from ear to ear and said, “That’s quite an accomplishment, Miss Peterson.” High praise from “Killer” Hiller.
That was the last time I ever talked to him. Oh, I thought of him many times over the years — remembered things he had taught me with a smile—but I never returned to my high school after that, and never got in touch with him again.
When I heard he had passed away, my first thought was, “I wish I had told him how much I learned from him and what a difference he made in my life.” I was able to track down his daughter through Facebook and tell her. I’m sure I was just one of many students she heard similar stories from.
As I thought more about Mr. Hiller, I realized there were many other people who have influenced my life in profound ways; people I haven’t been in contact with for years. So I’ve decided I’m not going to waste any more opportunities! I’m going to write a note each week to someone who has made a difference in my life.
There have been lots of people who have helped me along the way, so it will definitely take me awhile, but I’m determined to reach as many as I can and I challenge you to do the same. After all, we never really know when that last opportunity will be, do we?
And it may just be good for our well-being.
In his book Thanks, Robert A. Emmons discusses a research study that found people who practice gratitude are measurably 25 percent happier than people who don’t. So while my intention is to make others feel good about their contributions, it appears I stand to benefit from this project as well. I guess that is the sign of a truly great teacher. It’s been three decades since I left high school and Mr. Hiller’s still teaching me lessons—even from that big classroom in the sky.
A picture of me from my high school yearbook.
Is there someone who made a significant impact on your life? Share in a comment below who you plan to reconnect with.
For 20 years, Chrys Peterson was the face of WTOL news, anchoring the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. She is now a correspondent for ProMedica HealthConnect and spokeswoman for Friends for Life, a monthly newsletter for women that offers health and wellness advice with a focus on cancer prevention.