The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill

The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill

by Molly Worthen


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Psychologically astute and passionately written, Molly Worthen’s remarkable debut charts the intricate relationship between student and teacher, biographer and subject. As a Yale freshman, Worthen found herself deeply fascinated by worldly-wise professor Charles Hill, a former diplomat who had shaped American foreign policy in his forty-year career as an adviser to Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, among others. Hill was never afraid to tell students how to think or what to do, and the Grand Strategy seminar he co-taught had developed a cult following.

The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost is at once the biography of a political insider and the story of how its author evolved as she wrote it. In a moving, highly original work, Worthen conveys the joy and the heartache of uncovering the human being behind one’s idol.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618872671
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 08/16/2007
Pages: 378
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.68(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

MOLLY WORTHEN graduated from Yale University in 2003. She received the Ellsworth Prize for most distinguished senior essay in the humanities, the Schubart Prize for best original published work, the David C. DeForest/ Townsend Premium Prize for oration, and the Kingsley Fellowship for the study of Russian Orthodox Old Believers in Alberta. She has written for the Yale Daily News, the Toledo Blade, the Dallas Morning News, and Time. Her interests include cartoon illustration, fly fishing, and improvisational comedy. She is also a national championship debater. This is her first book.

Read an Excerpt


The genius of Charles Hill is his silence. In books and in school we had
encountered the far-off places and the Great Men whom he served: Hong
Kong, Vietnam, and Israel; Ellsworth Bunker and Henry Kissinger, George
Shultz and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But he never mentioned them in class,
and as artless freshmen we had yet to pick up on the gossip that the
upperclassmen traded after his lectures. Most of us were too young to
remember the Iran-Contra affair, at the time preferring Saturday morning
cartoons to Oliver North. We did not know that our professor's notebooks
helped to break open the investigation. Our ignorance was for the best. His
presence, his hold on the class, was enough to make us freeze in our seats.
Filled at first with the happy murmur of weekend gossip, the room snapped
silent at nine o'clock when Professor Hill walked in. He wore a stone-colored
suit, and he did not speak or look at us until he had taken his seat at the
head of the table and pulled his yellow legal pad from his backpack. The
backpack, please note, was made of dignified brown leather and detracted
only slightly from the overall gravity of his image.

He sat leaning close to the table, his back straight and
motionless as a marble figure tipping imperceptibly from its column. During
the week we spent studying the Romans, Professor Hill passed around a
picture of the bust of Emperor Vespasian. He called it "The Roman Face."
There was a resemblance between my instructor and the emperor's ancient
countenance, rough-hewn and furrowed, with wide, sad eyes that laid bare a
life of harddecisions. Vespasian, too, had a strong mouth that rarely looked
to speak, and then only to rapt attention. The emperor even had the same
ears—medium-sized, protruding just a bit. Professor Hill claimed to have
never thought of the likeness.
He always began class with a quiet voice, his elbows resting upon
the table in perfect forty-five-degree angles. He held this position for the entire
hour, save an infrequent nod or a reach for the notepad. There was never a
pen or paper clip in his hand. Professor Hill did not fiddle. He called on us by
our last names—I had never been called Ms. Worthen before—and whenever
any of us spoke, he made a tiny mark on his notepad, as if he were an
Olympic figure-skating judge. None of us ever knew whether those marks
portended good or ill. Within minutes we did not trust ourselves to think or
speak. We had to, however, for Professor Hill assigned one of us to lead the
discussion each day. Over the course of the semester some of my
classmates came to class unprepared. When they turned red and stuttered
that they had forgotten it was their turn to lead, Professor Hill stared at them,
silent, waiting to see what they would do. Most composed themselves and
found something to say, eventually. The rest of the class took the lesson to
heart. Some of us learned to stay up late, crafting the following
day's "spontaneous" insights in our notebooks, to be referenced subversively
whenever we raised our hands.
Our other teachers were not like this. They were prone to wearing
blue jeans to class and were lenient with those who wanted to chew on a
granola bar or show up in sweatpants, but the discussions they led were
often fraught with droning and self-importance. No one brought snacks to
Professor Hill's class—especially after one girl, a well-meaning Californian
named Ellen, accidentally tipped her orange juice into Professor Hill's lap. He
stood, brushed the excess from his trousers, shook off his notebook, and
picked up where he had left off. He said nothing—he did not even warn her
never to bring a beverage to class again. But Ellen was never the same,
always shy and jittery after that, like a beaten cat. If the rest of us ever forgot
to grab breakfast beforehand, we chose to go hungry.
Almost no one in Professor Hill's class talked too much or
wandered off the subject. This was a result of the self-discipline that comes
when your instructor is stiff and serious-voiced, when every clearing of his
throat sounds like the strike of the hour. A classmate named Sky Schouten
remembered that "Every class with him felt like a political summit meeting.
You had to come prepared—every seminar I knew I'd see him, I tucked in my
shirt and shaved. That was how he made you feel, that this was a serious
enterprise . . . and you owed it to the founding fathers who wrote these
Professor Hill has always taught like a diplomat, not an academic.
He is not loquacious. On a university campus noisy with undergraduate
chatter and self-important faculty pontification, he is different. He is a magpie
of words and forms, relentlessly clipping newspaper articles, photocopying
the legends of seventeenth-century maps, van Gogh sketches, or passages
of Nathaniel Hawthorne to demonstrate an instance of symbol, word craft, or
precise expression. His students never write long-winded seminar papers. He
assigns Herculean tasks of distillation, essay prompts that require them to
sweep and analyze Virgil or Machiavelli in a paper the length of an office
memo. He is known for striding over to the chalkboard to scratch out three
words and a triangle and pronounce, "That is Thomas Hobbes," or reduce The
Peloponnesian War to a six-part logic chain. Everything to its category,
teaches Professor Hill, and in due course the world and its history are bound
according to War, Empire, Culture, Language, Revolution, and other
hopelessly broad slices of human experience. The view is captivating.
Students slide forward in their seats and trace the diagrams in their
notebooks. For many in that freshman seminar, these were the only
notebooks we did not throw out at semester's end.
Other Yale professors are more famous than Hill, have longer
bibliographies, and receive more requests to appear in PBS documentaries.
A half dozen command enthusiastic fan clubs among undergraduates. Even
in such company, Hill has been unusual from the start. While his colleagues
prefer to teach packed lecture halls and graduate seminars, when he began
teaching at Yale full-time in 1997 Hill found a place in the Directed Studies
first-year humanities program, among roomsful of impressionable freshmen.
The freshmen are the core of his following. They are awed by Yale,
intimidated by their professors, and thrilled that one would take an interest in
them. A student named Al Jiwa recalled that after finishing his final Directed
Studies exam, he staggered up to Hill to turn in his essays, haggard from
having pulled an all-nighter. "He shook my hand, and it was firm—but not too
firm," Al said. "I went home and told my suitemates, 'I just shook Charles
Hill's hand.' I will spend the rest of my life trying to re-create that handshake."
Upperclassmen too are susceptible to the influence of charismatic authority,
but nothing compares to the guileless wonder of an eighteen-year-old still
finding his way around Yale's Gothic spires and windowless secret society
By the time the term is over, many of his freshmen are composing
tentative e-mails to ask Hill to be their academic adviser. When he writes
back saying "it would be an honor to work with you"—for he never turns
anyone down—they are giddy. Over the next three years they trade elaborate
theories about how he signs his e-mails—always "==CH" directly after his
last sentence, without hitting the space bar or enter key to separate his
message from the body of the letter and the trail of earlier correspondence
below. Some are convinced that this must be a CIA practice (for rumors are
always floating around that Hill is an undercover agent). Others suggest that
the appearance of his cursory sign-off is part of his studied plan to appear as
a highflier with barely time to squeeze in correspondence between all of his
secret meetings with diplomats and heads of state. Finally, with the benefit of
several years' distance from my own freshman year, I asked Hill about it
myself. "I never really thought about it," he answered. "It just seemed good to
do something a little distinctive." He had succumbed to electronic
communication only two years earlier, when the university library insisted
that he have an e-mail account to check out books. Hill is a relic of a lost
age. His conservatism is less easily caricatured than the liberals on campus
would like to believe.
To break through their professor's stone-faced mystery, even for
only a moment, is always a great victory for students. It becomes a game—
one that begins in the classroom, where "if Hill said something to you, or said
your name in class, you'll tell ten of your friends," said a student named
Bryan Cory. "He's so studied, he weighs his words so carefully, that it's
difficult not to analyze every move he makes. If you get a smile, that's huge."
The game continues when students spot him striding gruffly down the street
and try to embarrass him into saying hello. Bryan recalled an afternoon when
he was walking with his girlfriend, also Hill's student. As they approached
Hill, he lowered his head and covered his face with his hat. "Only after I said
a big hi and smiled did he shyly smile and say hello." That smile is
uncommon and coveted. "All you get when you walk into his office is one
quarter of a smile," said Eliana Johnson. "Then he stops—as if he's
thinking, 'wait, I don't do that.'" It took me four years to get Hill to laugh, and
even then it was only by accident, by way of an anecdote I told about my
father's peewee football team. He emitted a sound somewhere between a
cough and a sneeze—it disappeared too quickly for me to tell for sure. I felt
as if I had seen a store-window mannequin move.
Sometime after I turned in my final exam in the winter of freshman
year, and I knew that I would not see Professor Hill in the classroom for
several months, I worked up the nerve to go to his office hours a few times.
The third-floor hallway of 31 Hillhouse Avenue was narrow, gray, and
uninviting. At most hours of the day, I would trip over a classmate leaning
against the table at the end of the corridor, backpack sagging off one
shoulder, paging through the reading material offered in that cramped and
perilous waiting corner. A few feet away, a slit of light spilled onto the carpet
from the cracked door to Professor Hill's office. Voices spoke quietly inside. I
shifted my backpack to the other shoulder and waited my turn.
The selection of magazines spread across the table was
bewildering: a thick Wall Street Journal; the latest Harley-Davidson
Magazine; a monthly newsletter published by the National Rifle Association;
a robin's- egg blue copy of Foreign Affairs. The mess of periodicals was a
collage of the Professor Hill myth. To his students, he is a renegade in a well-
tailored suit, a man of wild travels and wise opinions who has been known to
clomp into class in motorcycle boots. Like the others who waited their turn
next to the table, I ran my hand across the incongruous assortment of
magazines and wondered about the man who subscribes to them all and
leaves them outside for the speculation of his visitors.
When I opened his office door, I always found him in the same
position —leaning over a pile of papers, his chair pulled close to his desk. He
glanced up, and there was a flicker of a smile, but it burned out quickly. His
eyes were expectant, and never surprised.
Bookshelves lined the walls of his small office, packed with
volumes ranging from classical literature and Emerson to Chinese-American
diplomacy. A ponderous English dictionary, its unabridged pages trimmed in
red gilt, lay open at his elbow next to a legal pad and fountain pen. The rest
of the books overflowed onto the tops of his filing cabinets and onto the floor
in piles below the window, like refugees flocking for shelter, without any
bibliographic order. On the far side of the room beneath the dormer window
was an armchair, a floor lamp, and a stack of essay booklets waiting to be
graded. A few feet away sat a black Windsor chair, uncomfortable-looking
and probably the sort that Puritan colonists used, its backrest embellished
with the seal of the U.S. Department of State. The office walls were bare but
for a framed black-and-white photograph of the Parthenon, which leaned on
one of the filing cabinets. Next to it, for a reason I could not imagine, lay a
weather-beaten baseball glove and a scuffed ball.
The office reflected the man who worked there: unadorned,
serious, and never wholly explained. My classmates and I trudged up the
three flights of stairs to his office for more than an opinion on our rough drafts.
We wanted life advice, and for once we found a professor who would tell us
what we ought to do. After a few conversations with Professor Hill, a student
named Ewan MacDougall was convinced to join the Marines: "I saw [the
Marine representative] in the rotunda one day and called Hill for advice on it,
and he made a series of predictions about the Marine training that summer,
and they all came true." Hill told Ewan that the Marines would push him until
he thought he would break. He would learn to be a leader, and he would learn
how to yell— when he got home in the fall, his father wouldn't recognize
him. "I laughed at the time," Ewan said. "But he was right on, in every regard."
There are no waffling questions or doting effusions—never a "What
feels right to you?" or "Perhaps you should take some time for self-
discovery." Professor Hill tires of the usual answers, the short-term jobs and
stints in the Peace Corps that college students turn to by default, to stall
life's decisions. Melissa Wisner thought she was all set to work in
investment banking, but her plans changed with an e-mail from her
professor: "I did a lot of interviewing at I-banks, and he hates I-banks," she
said. When an opportunity arose to work for Halliburton in Kuwait, she
mentioned it to Hill. But her parents were horrified by the idea, so instead
Melissa accepted an offer from Morgan Stanley in New York. "Hill got wind of
this—this was a moment when a professor interceded and changed my life—
and he sent me a one-line e-mail that said, 'Come to my office. We need to
reexamine your decision.' I went and he said, 'I understand your parents'
concern, but think about it, and do it because you want to.' So I'm going to
Kuwait. My parents hate him now."
Any professor who encourages his students to join the military
and work for Halliburton will not find many allies among the liberal Yale
faculty. Professor Hill has few. Most of his colleagues respect his intellect,
but they are uneasy about his influence here. That influence has grown in
recent years. Increasing numbers of students flock to his office hoping for
unambiguous counsel, a foolproof grand strategy. For it does seem that he
has mapped out a life plan for each of them. Somewhere, whether amid the
pages of Professor Hill's countless notepads or in the back of his mind, there
are records and predictions begun with the first eviscerations penned in red
ink on his students' papers freshman year, continued all the way through the
job interviews and senior essays.
During office hours, the time when professors are supposed to put
their feet up on their desks and students are supposed to strike up casual
conversation, the Charles Hill myth persists. He does not invite banter or
personal confidences. He rarely engages in small talk, and then only with
reluctance and artlessness. When the phone rings while Hill is meeting with
a student, he never suggests that they continue the conversation another
day. But he will pick up the phone and talk or, more commonly, listen and
scribble for five or ten minutes, while the student pretends to read the titles of
the books on the shelves, stares at her watch, and wonders whether she
missed some cue to leave. If she packs up her books and rises for the door,
he will often wave her back to her seat. In part Hill does this because it is
efficient; few of his phone calls are long. And in part, although he would never
admit this, allowing a student to eavesdrop on his conversations with George
Shultz or people from the vice president's office is not bad for his reputation
around campus. Aaron O'Connell, a skeptical graduate student, related one
rumor he'd heard: "Someone once said—and this story is emblematic even if
it's false—that he heard Hill has a secure phone in his office so he can call
Washington. He said that Hill picked up the phone and said, 'Hill here, go
ahead.' It evokes the image of Batman picking up the Batphone. That's part
of the seduction."
For more than thirty years, Professor Hill worked in the back
corridors of the State Department, a silent yet tirelessly effective officer
whose name made few newspaper headlines but remains attached to many
of the watersheds in twentieth-century American diplomatic history. The
rumors his students whisper during lecture are, for the most part, true. And
although by now he is mostly retired from active duty, Washington is often on
the other end of those clipped telephone conversations we are permitted to
overhear in his office. The same force of mind and power of expression that
propelled him through the ranks of the Foreign Service have made Professor
Hill one of the most effective and provocative instructors at Yale University.
He is also one of the least understood. His students are either awed or
repelled. In either case, they do not get far beyond the jumble of periodicals
on the table outside his office.

There is always discussion in Professor Hill's seminars. But at the end of the
hour, most of the notebooks that flap closed and slide into backpacks are
filled with the thought trees and idea charts that he drew on the board at the
start of class. He teaches by verdict, not by question, and the lessons are
difficult to dispute. Carolyne Davidson is a graduate student who argued with
him regularly. "He rarely frames an idea as his opinion—always as the given
truth," she said. "This is his diplomatic style. After all, if you were presenting
a memo to Kissinger, you wouldn't want him to have to think about it. You'd
want him to take it as truth. But it's hard to launch into a debate after that."
Hill does not hesitate. He always knows. He considers it his duty
to redeem those misguided minds that disagree with him, and the cold
simplicity of his arguments seduces us. Professor Hill is a teacher, a role
model, and a counselor for many of my classmates. But to others, he is a
sermonizer and an influence to be avoided. Students like Dan Kurtz-Phelan,
who enrolled in Hill's yearlong international studies lecture course but
dropped it after a semester, worry that his teaching style prevents them from
figuring things out on their own. "Many of his students are willing to be spoon-
fed, and that terrifies me a little. He passes off his unique interpretations of
events as standard beliefs, his conservative political views as 'methodological
differences,'" Dan observed. "He has a stronger agenda than he lets on . . .
and if you disagree, his answer is, 'But this is the way things work in the real
world.' You can't really argue with that."
I worry that once upon a time, I was one of those willing students.
Toward the end of that first semester freshman year, I wrote on the inside
cover of my notebook, "Charles Hill is God." The evidence is still there, in red
marker, all capital letters. I am embarrassed by it now, but I can't bring
myself to rip off the cover or cross out the words. That would be like tearing
up my third-grade school photograph, that awful picture featuring the floppy
unicorn sweater and buckteeth—a mortifying moment in my personal history,
but a necessary one.
It was of some comfort to learn that I wasn't alone. Charlie's
teaching style dazzles and offends in the same way that religious
indoctrination does. Other professors have a powerful presence at the lectern,
but "with Hill it's different," said Lindsay Hayden, who studied Literature with
him. "Some people can't stand him and his views. Others won't hear a word
against him. It's scary. It's like a religion." A classmate of Lindsay named
Amia Srinivasan said that her boyfriend "worships Professor Hill," although
her own opinion was ambivalent. "It's like I'm an atheist and he's a believer,"
she said. She told me they tried not to talk about Hill's class too much
because they ended up only fighting. Weeks later, at the semester's end, I
ran into Amia on the street and she grabbed me by the arm. "I've converted! I
believe!" she cried. Her boyfriend stood beside her like a proud godfather.
Hill's students sense that they must work to earn admission into
the small circle that has his respect: the few who "get it." His pedagogy is
Puritan, fashioned around an enlightened elect. Outsiders are damned to the
darkness of ignorance. There is no middle ground. And there is nothing more
powerful—or more dangerous—than true belief.

There is another class that Professor Hill teaches. This one I never took. I
had not seen it listed in the course catalog but later learned that the course
was indexed in the graduate school bulletin. At first I heard about it only
through a couple of more vigilant friends who were not intimidated by the
class's listing as History 985a. This was in the days before word of the
course got out—before the course was advertised all over campus with color
posters featuring Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta; before each year's
applications soared into triple digits; before observers began to whisper words
like "elitist," "conservative," and "cult"—words considered synonyms by many
at Yale.
The Grand Strategy seminar, only a few years old, has become
one of the marquee classes at Yale. Every year over a hundred students
apply for some twenty slots. For the lucky few who are admitted, Hill and his
colleagues John Gaddis and Paul Kennedy collaborate on a yearlong
curriculum that combines study of the classic texts of strategic thought with
real-world practice. Students spend the spring semester reading everything
from Sun Tzu and Thucydides to Winston Churchill and Henry Kissinger.
After a summer internship spent learning about grand strategy abroad, in
business, or elsewhere outside the classroom, they return for the fall to plan
complex "policy briefs" on vast subjects like Culture, Technology, or the
Environment. In the interest of producing graduates with enough mettle to
brief the White House someday, the professors and students do their best to
tear apart their peers' presentations. Interwoven among these lessons are
extracurricular lectures and dinners with ambassadors, policy analysts, and
other "grand strategists" (many are famous friends of Hill) who talk to the
class about applying their lessons in real life. Grand Strategy invades like the
Blob, seeping into mealtimes, summer activities, friendships, career plans,
and every facet of its students' lives. Other courses begin and end at the
classroom door, but not this one.
The course is intended to train generalists who can grasp the
broad picture without glossing over details and who are brave enough to
tackle uncomfortable questions of power, war, and human life. The syllabus
is predicated upon the belief that there are foundational ideas by which the
world's great leaders have governed states and led armies to battle, and that
these ideas remain relevant today. It is an ambitious goal, perhaps
overreaching. It runs against almost everything else that Yale students learn
in their narrowly focused history courses and political science programs
based upon neat statistics and rational choice theory's forecasts of logical
human behavior. Whether or not the students agree with the claims of Grand
Strategy, they are forced to consider what they believe about right and wrong,
and the way history operates.
Grand Strategy, like Professor Hill, has its own myth. The liberals
on campus call the class Grand Fascism. They are kidding, but only in part.
Many Yale students and faculty are suspicious of the program. Some revile it
openly. Graduate students who take the class—particularly those in the
History and American Studies Departments, where politics tend toward Ralph
Nader territory—find that GS leaves them "tainted" in the eyes of their peers.
They spend a lot of time defending their professors to students who have
never heard a lecture by Gaddis, Kennedy, or Hill, fending off accusations of
brainwashing and Machiavellian amorality. The connections between Grand
Strategy professors and people in George W. Bush's administration are
known, and liberals on campus are eager to spin conspiracy theories. Many
accuse GS of operating from the same principles that supposedly moved the
Bush administration to place the intelligence of experts subservient to the
policies of ideologues, to distrust hard science, to suspect hidden agendas in
outside analysts, and to lend no ear to human compassion. They accuse the
Grand Strategy program of packing its curriculum with Dead White Males,
teaching students how to lust for power, and encouraging them to trade in
humane sensitivities for realpolitik—or even more frightening, for a sense of
By the time the Grand Strategy phenomenon had burst forth on
campus, I was a second-semester junior unable to fit the course into my few
remaining months at Yale. But I could sit in occasionally, attend some of the
extracurricular activities, and talk to the people involved. There were
numerous ways to find a place on the margin and observe. Students awed or
repelled by the Grand Strategy course are the same ones who are awed or
repelled by Professor Hill, and for the same reasons: the aura of power, the
whiff of elitism, the promise of an answer to life's messiest questions. Hill
embodies the course's philosophy. In the end, though, Grand Strategy is
only a class, and its tenets mean nothing without some sense of what
happens when they are put to work in the course of a human life. The
ultimate lesson, therefore, must begin where Charles Hill began: in southern
New Jersey, in a place and time two hundred miles and seven decades
distant from the seminar table in New Haven.

Charles Hill was fifteen when he first kissed a girl. This feat was more
momentous than any speech he would write for Henry Kissinger or any back-
channel diplomacy he would ever conduct for George Shultz.
For all the lecturing, moralizing, and peer pressure that pervaded
the average American boyhood, no authority had anything useful to say about
girls. Charlie recalled his adolescent puzzlement: "I was a slow developer. I
was attracted to girls but I didn't know what they were. I couldn't imagine
what their anatomy could be like—we had no media to tell you these things. I
was in a state of fascination, but always at a great distance . . . kind of like
Don Quixote and Dulcinea."
Only a singularly brazen girl could rescue him. Mary Anne Gbur
was unconventionally attractive. Her poise and charisma made her beautiful
and earned her a spot at the center of the high school's in-crowd. She played
tennis and directed class plays; she was a leader. She sat in front of Charlie
in their eleventh-grade American history class. Charlie knew who Mary Anne
was—everyone did—but he had never spoken to her. One day in the spring,
she turned around in the middle of class and asked Charlie what he thought
of her outfit.
She was wearing a pleated skirt. Charlie thought it was nice.
From that day forward, Mary Anne spent a good portion of each
class twisted around in her seat, quizzing Charlie on the fashion triumphs
and gaffes committed by girls in the class. They gossiped until the teacher
reproached them. One Saturday morning, Mary Anne telephoned Charlie at
home. She was directing the class play and suggested that he come with her
to the high school and help rearrange the set.
This was the first time Charlie had received a phone call from a
girl. He agreed unhesitatingly.
He met Mary Anne outside her house and they walked together to
the high school auditorium, where Charlie moved the furniture that Mary Anne
had assigned him, then sat down to lounge on the couch. She finished her
work and came over to join him, sitting fairly close, Charlie recalled. They
chatted a while. The conversation ended in a kiss, half accidental and half
inevitable, in the manner of most romances.
When Charlie first touched on the subject of Mary Anne—
fleetingly, in the same monotone that he used at the lecture-hall podium— I
was filled with a mixture of glee and horror. The story of Professor Hill's first
kiss—what fun! What disarming humanity! What priceless gossip at the
dining-hall table! But as I sat across from Charlie's desk, I avoided his stare.
There was something radically improper in my professor's confession of
having once been a hopeless adolescent.
Charlie sensed it too. He had never dodged a question before, but
now there was a hesitation when I asked him, during our second meeting,
about Mary Anne. He mentioned her only in passing, as if his first girlfriend
were in the same tedious but necessary category as first birthdays and high
school graduations. He would prefer to talk instead about the stuffed
Cooper's Hawk mounted on his bureau when he was young, or his favorite
boyhood adventure stories.
But I wanted to know more about Mary Anne, so I asked the most
innocuous question I could think of. Where did he take her on dates— to the
movies? to share a soda? What did teenagers do back then?
My question met with a brief but ponderous silence. Charlie
cleared his throat solemnly (Charlie often prefers to put the punctuation
marks at the beginnings of sentences). "Well . . . ," he said, "as a general
principle, I think the question of people's careers and what they do and what
is being written about in biographies, and then the side that is love and
romance and sex is an interesting question . . . It's a biographer's dilemma
to try to sort this out and it's never been done quite right."
I groaned inwardly. For the next five minutes, he lectured me on
the blunders of every biography ever written and its author's mistaken ideas
of private life. Some biographers could not resist the voyeuristic interlude.
Others, by excluding matters of the heart, did not realize that men spend
more time thinking about sex than about anything else. I kept my eyes
focused on my notebook. There was nothing outlandish about his statement,
but coming from the same mouth that I knew as a font of wisdom on
Herodotus, it was a scandal.
I thought that would be our first and last conversation about
Charlie's private life. It was not. He went on, with minimal prodding, to spend
an hour telling me about that first kiss, during which his voice and facial
expression never deviated from the imperturbable mask. Over the course of
my research I would ask him personal questions only as a last resort. But
even on the most sensitive matters he answered with thoroughness and
patience, never stiffening at my prying. His openness was a troublesome
blessing, for it would force me to decide, as our conversations progressed,
how far I would push. His childhood would remain shrouded in the mists of
teleological boyhood play and purity of heart, but muddier waters were to
I'm not sure what my goals were in the beginning. I think I only
wanted to hear a few more of my professor's stories. I did not set out to write
a hagiography, but I didn't begin with the express aim of cutting him down to
size either. I realized early on, however, that my work would be more
complicated than regular installments of Story Time with Professor Hill. I not
only had the task of handling the most delicate details of a man's life but the
mandate to judge that life. It was a presumptuous enterprise. I could have no
foreknowledge of the outcome back then—no historian or biographer ever
does. As Herodotus, the greatest storyteller of all (and the one who
introduced Charlie and me), might have said: stories have a way of telling
themselves. The teller might learn a bit about herself by letting them speak.

During the first part of the last century, Bridgeton, New Jersey, was a small
truck-gardening and manufacturing town of about sixteen thousand,
surrounded mostly by farmland. It was an isolated place. Photographs from
the time reflect a classic mid-Atlantic town: soda jerks standing in their white
jackets and slicked hair in front of Cut-Rate Drugs, and Bailey's Hometown
Store, hosting a sale on LeStourgeon's Kew-Bee bread, where Merle Bailey
himself stands out front in his ill- fitting jacket. In another picture, uniformed
members of the Onized Club Band, the official employee band of the local
Cumberland Glass Works plant, sit solemnly holding their instruments, like
infantry in a Civil War daguerreotype. It was a place where white houseboats
festooned with flags floated down the Cohansey River on Labor Day, and at
the end of the growing season in September, when the trucks lined up for two
miles to deliver tomatoes to Ritter's Catsup factory, the whole town smelled
like tomato paste. Women managed their own gardens, men went to work,
everyone went to church, and nobody thought much beyond growing up to be
just like his parents. By all obvious measures, Bridgeton was Yale
University's perfect antipode. Charles Hill* was born there on April 28, 1936.
His parents, Morton and Alvenia, brought him home to 30 Institute Place, a
simple white clapboard house overlooking the Cohansey and miles of
woodland beyond.
Charlie was both a logical creature of his parents and a stranger
to them. At the heart of the ideas and attitudes that Yale liberals have come
to loathe in Charlie Hill is the imprint of Morton, a frank, squarish man with
ears like a terrier. Morton Hill was the son of a stonemason who died young
and a lonely, wearied mother who raised him and his four siblings in a small
house in Dividing Creek, a scruffy town on the edge of the pine barrens in
rural South Jersey. After high school he enrolled in dental school and ran his
own practice in town for the next thirty years. He worked out of duty, never
passion. His happiness came from making things with his hands. He bought
the dilapidated shells of old Packards and Pierce Arrows and spent hours
every night restoring them in a garage he had built behind the house. He
carved duck decoys for friends and often spent three or four hours a night
caning chairs with cane he had pulled himself from a nearby marsh.
Morton was conservative by instinct and ethos. He pulled himself
out of a poor childhood and saw no reason why other men couldn't do the
same. He was the sort of man who taught his son to swim by tossing him
out of a rowboat and paddling away until the thrashing, gasping boy figured
out how to keep afloat by himself. He soon did. Charlie was a fast learner.

One of his grandmothers used to tell a story about baby Charlie. One
afternoon he was playing with a beach ball in his playpen in the front yard. An
older neighborhood boy came along, picked up the ball, and bounced it off
Charlie's head. His grandmother ran out of the house screeching, but Charlie
just laughed. He was unflappable, even as an infant.
Charlie grew into an average-looking boy, skinny with banister
legs and a fuzzy sand-brown crewcut that rose in a cowlick at the crown, like
a patch of grass neglected by the lawnmower. His ears stuck out just a little
and made him seem perpetually alert. From the earliest he had a sense of
his world and what he wanted from it. His mother once asked whether he
would like to have brothers and sisters. He said no. It seemed like a bad
idea. No child, when allowed to ponder the consequences of siblings, would
wish to divide his parents' attention and impair his own authority. Charlie
already had plenty of friends in the neighborhood. He would remain an only
child, quite capable of taking responsibility for his own amusement.
Perhaps he was too capable. No one learns the limits of grand
strategy as quickly as a child with a sibling or two—a fellow little person who
absorbs an equal amount of his parents' attention, hope, and frustration,
whose inconvenient presence forces the alteration of every childhood
calculus. An only child, on the other hand, is always master of his domain. In
a world where friends came and went but ideas were eternal playmates, it
might have been easy to get carried away by their power. But Charlie's
students would find themselves lucky for this. Imaginative and lonely boys
grow up to be men of ideas.
Charlie's childhood revolved around World War II and ball games,
the two realities that dominated the lives of most boys at the time. He made
his mother sew sergeant's stripes on the sleeves of his T-shirts. His father
carved model fighter planes for him, complete with spinning propellers and
tiny swastikas stamped on the nose to signify enemy aircraft shot to pieces.
After the bombing of Hiroshima, Morton carved his son an enormous model B-
29, which perched magnificently on the bookshelf next to a disarmed hand
grenade given to him by his hero, a soldier neighbor come home from the
war. Charlie lounged on the floor of his bedroom for hours beneath these
brave artifacts, meticulously assembling the cardboard Spitfires and German
Messerschmitts that were printed on the backs of cereal boxes. Once a
week, while his grandmothers looked on and hooted, Charlie whizzed them
gleefully into the burning trash barrel and watched them blacken and curl in
the backyard antiaircraft fire. Then he trotted inside to read or listen to the
radio. Despite afternoons spent with scissors and paste, he had no
attachment to the planes. He thrilled in the moment of their climactic
combustion and moved on.
In place of baseball cards, he and his friends collected trading
cards of military heroes, each pack complete with a crumbly stick of bubble
gum. Charlie belonged to the generation of boys that chose for their role
models not sports stars, as their successors would, but four-star generals,
fighter pilots, and men who gave their lives for their country. Charlie kept his
heroes as he would later keep his classroom: pious to the old gods, classical
in aesthetic.
In a family that had for generations lived and died without venturing
out of southern New Jersey, Aunt Elsie, Morton's older sister, was the
sophisticated one. She went north to college and had a career as principal at
a nearby school. She was interested in the world and always had the itch to
travel. Bridgetoners, to her, were "dull normals." When Charlie was about
seven, she hooked him on books of escape: stories about world travelers, old
copies of National Geographic, and Terry and the Pirates comics, an exciting
series for boys based on the Flying Tiger pilots in China. Elsie bribed her
nephew to climb up to the attic and set mousetraps for her by allowing him to
choose one book from the dusty stacks he found while he was up there. For
all his love of running around with neighborhood pals when the weather was
nice, during rainy days, when all children reveal their true characters, Charlie
read books in his room instead of playing Monopoly or making messes with
his friends. He began taking notes—thoughts and scribbles that popped up
as he read, doodles sparked by dazzling heroes and vicarious triumphs in
worlds far more compelling than Bridgeton. The pages he filled were not
profound, but they contained the germ of habit.
Charlie began school a year earlier than his classmates. He was
an unremarkable student, bored by most of his classes. There was, during
one fall term in high school, an English teacher who led an absorbing study
of Boswell, Johnson, and their London circle. But when Charlie returned after
the winter holidays he found that new state guidelines had replaced his
favorite class with a more sensible telephone-etiquette training program. As
to his classmates, he had no more interest in their parties and cruising for
girls than he did in phone manners. He became a marginal character. He told
himself that he had decided to be so.
At the seashore, however, Charlie was always at the center. On
the sand at Ocean City, where his father built a cottage and his family
vacationed every summer, the other boys—who had never met Bridgeton
Charlie—listened to him and relied on him. In their endless games of beach
football, he played quarterback. As the years went by, the Ocean City boys
too fell prey to fruitless cruising for girls, and Charlie's father began to insist
that he spend his days in back-searing construction work. He built bulkheads
and worked as a gondola kicker, scram- bling inside railroad cars loaded with
coal to kick loose chunks of coal jammed in the chute. He joined the
International Hod Carriers and Common Laborers Union and came home
every day gritty and tired, but never too exhausted to join his friends playing
in the surf. Fundamentally, "there was something democratic about the
beach," said his Ocean City friend Joe Evans. "We created it from scratch."
The beach was the first place where Charlie learned that power lies in the
proper balance of self-invention and self-extirpation. It was a lesson he would
live and teach without even knowing it.
Charlie was not long for South Jersey. In the years to come, he
would nurse a special pride for the place, and all of his stories would lead
back home. But those sentiments came only after he left. At the time he felt
nothing but the urge to sever his moorings. As his senior year rounded to a
close, the notion of college became his preoccupation. His bedroom walls
were pinned with the standards of Army, Navy, Brown, Princeton, and Yale—
a representation of the selection available in the hardware store display
window, rather than an affinity for any particular school. In the garage behind
his house was an ancient phonograph discarded by an anonymous relative,
nearly five feet tall, built to play records an inch thick. College life romanced
him with its music. Charlie spent hours in the garage listening to debonair
pop singers like Rudy Vallee and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians croon
about the bliss of fellowship, beer drinking, and football. He had no idea what
college actually meant—does any eighteen-year-old, then or now?—but it
promised an escape. It would be a suit jacket and tie reincarnation of the
Ocean City boys' club, filled with the vigorous male camaraderie in which
Charlie felt most comfortable. Yet it would also be a place where he could
hole up, consume great books, and hone his seriousness of character. To
most who knew the skinny young man, that seriousness was a benign pox
that had marked Charlie since birth (perhaps a recessive gene inherited from
Aunt Elsie). For the majority of Bridgetoners, to leave home for a university,
for another life, would be unbearable self-exile, the last resort of the sick man
who must leave for the health of the tribe. But for Charlie, there could be no
other way.
His mother saw no reason why her boy had to go so far away to
school. His father had always harbored the desire—expressed in Charlie's
earshot only once or twice—for his son to attend the Naval Academy at
Annapolis, but Charlie didn't have the grades to get in and would have flunked
the physical by being nearsighted. A neighbor named William Doherty, a
veterinarian who held a University of Pennsylvania degree, stocked his
bookshelves with impressive volumes like God and Man at Yale and never let
anyone forget that he was not a Bridgeton native (thereby earning Charlie's
awe). He continually reminded Charlie that no one from Bridgeton could
succeed at a "real" college.
Of the small, unplanned assortment of colleges to which Charlie
applied, Brown and Duke sent acceptance letters. He chose Brown because
it was in New England and (so he reasoned) it was a more serious place. For
the first time, a boy who had always been timid at parties and middling in
class finally stood out from his classmates. "To go to a New England, Ivy
League school from Bridgeton was a real rarity," said Bob Woodruff, who
went to high school with Charlie. "Charlie was maybe one in ten thousand."
That final summer before college was not much different from the
summers before. Charlie spent the days working on a road gang, returning
home dirty and sore. But come evening, he was never too tired to head out
with his friends and throw spirals down the beach. At first glance it seems
strange—a shame, perhaps—that he didn't absorb the social skills and
confidence he learned at the shore and bring his summer persona home with
him. The truth is that Charlie was, from boyhood, both an adroit team player
capable of taking the lead when conditions so demanded and a slightly
awkward loner, often happier in the company of no one save his books and
his thoughts. This observation will come as no surprise to the anxious,
slightly mysti.ed students who line up outside his office door each afternoon,
rehearsing opening lines in their heads. What is less obvious is that their
Professor Hill— commanding at the lectern, yet shy on the street; elusive
diplomat with important phone calls to make, yet accessible adviser always
free in his office—was never a person of contradiction. He was, rather, an
individual who learned to make choices as to what he would be. This is not
grand strategy, but it is a beginning.

* Charlie's given name is Morton Charles Hill. From the start and always, he
has gone by Charlie. The name Morton would have confused him with his

Copyright © 2005 by Molly Worthen. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

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