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Remembering Professer Joel Hildebrand: The dead man who was alive

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POSTED September 8, 2013 11:55 p.m.

It was early evening on Thanksgiving Day. The three-generation family was getting ready for the traditional meal.

The farm home was in a bucolic and rustic area in southwest Manteca right on the levee of the San Joaquin River.

I was interviewing the family patriarch who, with his wife, was visiting their son and his family for this very special holiday gathering.

As I recall, he did most of the talking. I did a lot of listening while taking down copious notes.

As dusk fell, and the dining table was set – I had a glimpse of it from the place where I was conducting the interview – the family, except the patriarch, proceeded nto the dining room and sat down to eat. The family patriarch, a jovial and extremely knowledgeable individual, kept on talking. I was feeling a bit self-conscious and somewhat embarrassed at the thought that I was keeping him away from sitting down to partake of the holiday meal with his family. At the same time, I thought it rude to interrupt him while he was on a roll.

After all, this was not just any ordinary nonagenarian. He was Joel Henry Hildebrand. THE eminent chemistry professor at the University of California – Berkeley, a world renowned figure for his many accomplishments in the field, his wit, and as an exemplary professor.

What brought me there that Thanksgiving Day was a story that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about a day or two before his visit to Manteca. As I recall, an announcement – I can’t remember exactly if it was a public notice from the university or from somewhere else – indicated that he had passed away. Of course, he was very much alive at that time. And he made sure everybody knew that he was still around and that, to paraphrase Mark Train’s famous quote, news of his demise was greatly exaggerated.

The story in the Chronicle gave proof that he was, indeed, still alive and kicking. In fact, the photograph that accompanied the story showed Hildebrand (I think he was in his late 90s at the time) holding an ax while doing chores around his home in the Bay Area with a big smile on his face.

It was easy to understand why they thought he was deceased. At the time of the interview, he had been retired from full-time teaching at Berkeley since 1952, although he remained a professor at the university until his death. A pioneer chemist and a giant figure in the field of chemistry research – he specialized in liquids and non-electrolyte solutions – Hildebrand Hall on the Berkeley campus was named in his honor.

But most of all, he delighted in being a teacher by his own admission. In an online article about him, he was quoted as saying during an interview he gave before his centenarian birthday: “Good teaching is primarily an art, and can neither be defined nor standardized…. Good teachers are born AND made; neither part of the process can be omitted.”

So, I may have been a reporter doing the interview, but I was also an avid student listening to a teacher par excellence.

I remembered that special assignment again recently after I learned about the demise of Barbara Hildebrand, the late professor’s daughter-in-law. It was at the home of Barbara and her husband Alex, who died about three years ago, where the Thanksgiving Day dinner and family reunion was held.

I rehashed that time again during a telephone interview last week with Mary, the younger daughter of Barbara and Alex Hildebrand. I told Mary I have never forgotten that particular interview and how her grandfather did not sit down at the same time with his family to partake of the Thanksgiving Day dinner, and that I still feel bad when I think about it.

Mary simply laughed and said about her beloved grandfather, “He loved attention. I’m sure he enjoyed being interviewed by you.”

Somewhere in my pile of old film negatives are the photographs I took of Joel Hildebrand smiling. Before the family sat down for dinner, I was also fortunate to have taken pictures of him and his equally affable wife, Emily.

Joel Hildebrand died a few years after that unforgettable interview. He was 101 years old.

For more on the storied life of the professor and his legacy to mankind, simply Google his name.

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