Jeff Hillard, on the cusp of his retirement last May and at the crest of his 35-year occupation at Mount St. Joseph University, places a rectangular prism of wrapping paper in front of one of his students.

Mount St. Joseph University retired professor jeff hillard smiling

Matte violet with a few strands of Scotch tape, the gift is a boxy epitome of itself. He passes three more to the rest of the Writer’s Block class, which he is teaching again this semester, and beseeches everyone to open them immediately.

Inside, three books reveal the titles “Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge” by Peter Orner, “Ghost Man” by Roger Hobbs, and “The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Writer’s Guide” by Michael Kardos. Other students have books by some of the same authors as well as a litany of additional prolific writers.

These books were gifted to one of Dr. Hillard’s final classes before his official retirement. Having made a personalized reading list for every student in Writer’s Block, Hillard presented his final contribution to the Mount community—and it could not have been better manifested than in these guides and bestsellers.

Intent on catalyzing the next generation of writers, Dr. Hillard has spent the greater of three decades cultivating creativity in all of its forms. But, in many ways, this was a means of cultivating himself. “The Mount was a part of my evolution,” he notes.

Starting off in journalism at the University of Cincinnati in the late seventies, Hillard had no intention of becoming a teacher. By his senior year in college, he already had employment as a writer for a local weekly paper, which he attained with the help of a contact at UC.

This was initially the dream for Hillard—his pieces were published on the front pages because he was the only hired staff at the time. The rest of the paper was filled in by several freelancers.

“I loved what I was able to do,” Hillard says, “because I wrote a wide range of journalism.”

His relationship with the publisher, however, eventually soured.

This triggered serious rethinking for Hillard, who expressed to his father how unhappy he felt heading in the direction he was: writing for The Enquirer.

“I’m not feeling it,” he told his father. The publisher “is not a good guy, and if he’s emblematic of publishers, I don’t want any part of it.”

“Then quit,” his dad responded. “Get something, do something you want.” It was at this point Hillard felt empowered to give up this unwanted journalistic destiny he was being ushered toward. But he was lost as to where to go next. Upon reflection over the fact that he came from a family of teachers on his dad’s side, “a lightbulb went off.”

“Teach!” he told himself. He became convinced that this was really the path he was supposed to take. He went to the education office at UC and learned he would only have to take another year-and-a-half of classes to complete all the required courses and student-teach.

At this time, changing majors so late was still feasible, “ I decided to teach,” Hillard mentions. “I was very happy making that transition.”

Hillard graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1981. By the next year, he was already teaching at his own alma mater. But he experienced a gravity about writing—a force that kept pulling him back to his calling and his identity as a wordsmith. All throughout his college and teaching careers, he was writing, as he had done consistently since he was 16.

“So I knew I was a writer,” he notes. He pursued it, literally, as was his passion.

“I’ve always had wanderlust,” says Hillard. “I’ve always been my own person. And I went west.” While his mother wasn’t nearly as enthused, he deeply wished to study creative writing as his friend was in Boulder, Colo. Hillard, already married, did so, leaving a tenure-track position at his high school to study writing in Colorado and get his Master’s degree. He graduated in 1985, but it became too expensive to stay there. He and his wife began struggling financially, so they came back to Cincinnati, and one year later, Hillard was hired at the Mount. In 1987, he began teaching.

“It’s what I’m always telling my students,” Hillard says. “Follow your goals, follow your dream, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it.” Despite all the discouragement to leave Ohio, Hillard was determined to study where he felt called. “Was it impetuous? It may have been slightly....But look where it got me.”

Hillard’s evolution is ever-active. His writing alone intimates that fact. Continuing to work on his young adult series Shine in Bedlam, Hillard captures the timelessness of teenage-hood. Drawing upon his own experiences as a youth, he relays a story about the past that appeals to youths today.

“I knew I had a pretty adventurous life as a young kid,” says Hillard, “and I wanted to tap into that….” The setting of the book is reminiscent of the areas Hillard was raised in and includes aspects of the “kind of crazy town I grew up in, which was a cornucopia of all kinds of different lifestyles and ethnicities I wanted to tackle that as a writer and explore those relationships in that small town.”

While Hillard himself was much younger in the sixties than the protagonist of his series, named “Shine,” he wished to represent the wildness of the late sixties and early seventies, “when Vietnam was going on, sex, drugs, and rock and roll and so forth.”

Lockland, the town Hillard grew up in, reflected many of the social issues of his time that had also made their way into Shine. One of the things that made Lockland “crazy and eclectic” was de facto segregation. While the schools were entirely integrated, black and white people lived in separate areas of the town and “that racial disparity was always there.”

This area was also once the “factory center of this region.” Several large manufacturing plants peppered Lockland. So much so, in fact, that many of Hillard’s peers in school didn’t plan to pursue any higher education because so much employment was available at the factories.

“Sometimes we couldn’t go out on the playground,” says Hillard, “because we’d suck in sulfur air and the teachers didn’t want us going out there. The cloud was so thick.” The town, however, while at the peak of its industrialization, was populated by several mom-and-pop shops, meat markets, bars, and churches.

Lockland also had a plethora of high-quality amenities, with some of the best football fields, baseball parks, gyms, and indoor swimming pools, but it has since deteriorated a bit, losing much of its praiseworthiness, and Hillard doesn’t look back.


A crowd of about 10 people expectantly awaited newcomers. Consisting mostly of Jeff Hillard’s closest friends and family, the group greeted anyone who sauntered in, prepared to converse with the usual inclinations of an avid socialite.

A giant chocolate-and-vanilla cake played nucleus to the room and the social gathering, as cake so often does.

More and more people entered the room, leaving gifts and letters on a designated table, and amassing into an assembly that nearly filled the room entirely. Random friendly exchanges started up until the room was roaring with conversation. It was silenced only for a moment to give way to the announcement that Jeff Hillard was officially retired, and that this was the celebration to honor it.

Hillard himself spoke to the crowd with a new poem about his hair and its progressive loss, after a semester of chemotherapy. The crowd was amused.

But this turnout was only the tip of the iceberg for those who have been impacted by the infinite wit and mentorship of Hillard, who keeps in touch with students he has guided years after their graduation.

Hunter Little is one such student. Currently pursuing her doctorate in English at the University of Washington, Little was once enrolled in a few of Hillard’s classes back in 2013.

“Mostly,” she recalls, “I remember his enthusiasm and passion for teaching writing, his love for poetry, his generosity, and how he instilled a passion for writing in his students—at least this was true for me. Jeff saw something special in my writing and the writing of every person enrolled in his classes. He continually encouraged me to pursue writing; his feedback was transformative and motivating, not punitive.”

While only having been enrolled for two years at the Mount before transferring to another school, Little had classes with Hillard the entire time. Having helped her through a dark period with such grace and meticulous understanding, Hillard is credited with laying the groundwork for Little’s own teaching methods and writing strategies.

Her own poetry, even, “was largely influenced by Jeff. Simply put, he never restricted us to meter, though we did learn to write villanelles and sestinas in his class. Poetry was (empowering) in Jeff’s classes, and he never judged nor put anyone down for their writing. He was also the first person who really had faith in my writing and didn’t give up on me, so I guess the wisdom I gained from that is to not give up on people that you believe have the potential to do something great and be sure to tell them when you see that potential in them.”

Hillard certainly is by no means frugal with commendation. And he means everything he says. He recognizes talent and spotlights it when he knows it deserves to be noticed and praised. For instance, he convinced Little to stick with an English major when she suggested switching it to Psychology in her sophomore year at the Mount. When she walked into his office to get his signature and permission to switch, he handed her a hefty packet of papers detailing all that can be accomplished with an English degree.

“He told me I should stay,” says Little. “And I did. Thanks to him, I got my MFA in creative writing and am now pursuing my PhD in English language and rhetoric.”

Even often navigating mental illness and sensed pain in his students with such conscientious accommodations, Hillard continually remains to be that much-needed guide for whatever problems his mentees are enduring.

“What people need to know,” Little adds, “is that he was the teacher and mentor I needed at that time, as I'm sure he was for many others; he was the teacher and mentor I hope to become. That influence cannot be fully expressed in words—it is a deep, nameless emotion. An affect. At the time, it was a hope for a future.”

Materializing futures is not only a tendency Jeff Hillard employs for his students, but one that he utilizes for himself as well.

On the threshold of the next phase of his life, just as he was on the interstice between the seventies and eighties when he made the decision to be a teacher, Hillard gifts his students some lasting advice.

“Don’t wait for the door to open,” he says. “Kick it open. Do so affectionately, do so respectfully, do so professionally, but this is a very competitive world.”

A strong advocate of a good work ethic, Hillard promises fair and fulfilling results, but only through dedication, diligence, and assertiveness. He encourages his students, and anyone who takes his advice, to maintain respect for others and treat everyone justly, while also imploring them to recognize their own excellence when it becomes apparent.

“Do not ever let anybody tell you no,” he says staunchly, especially “if it’s the right thing to do and it doesn’t hurt someone and it’s going to help you, and maybe eventually help someone [else]. I help as many writers as I can because I got it. It’s the pay-it-forward sort of thing.”

After officially retiring, and after bestowing final gifts of advice or books, Hillard plans to write full-time. Continuing to recover from cancer and the treatments for it, he refuses to back down from his literary passion. He has several projects already lined up.

“I’ll spend a lot of time with my family, too,” Hillard says. In addition to being an accomplished writer, Hillard is a lover of cooking, and intends to make the majority of the meals for his family himself.

Hillard isn’t a stranger to the Mount, however. Committing to be back for performances, musicals, and games, he also returned for one more semester this fall to teach his Writer’s Block course one more time.

“He was going to be stepping into a new home,” Hillard writes seemingly providentially about his titular character in “The Alfonso Ray.” “Lost in thought the way he was, he trusted he would see a porchlight on waiting for him. In this outpouring of night all the sudden, it would be the last light he’d know tonight.” The night, for Hillard, is the closing of his teaching career. But it isn’t by any means the last light he’ll know. Morning, after all, is just on the horizon. There is more writing and inspiration to come.

It isn’t just a coincidence, for instance, that the first chapter of his young adult novel “Shine in Grit City” includes the young protagonist Shine living in factory-ridden Mudtown, who, considering lost parrots, “couldn’t believe a bird could fly that far.” Hillard truly challenges the young and those with untapped potential to shine and to fly, even if they don’t believe in it or themselves. Reminiscent, especially in the historical context of “Shine,” of Pink Floyd’s 1975 hit “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Hillard and his novels really appear to be screaming “come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine.”

Shine on, Jeff, and we’ll all follow suit.