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Johann C. van Hille  (1910-1991)
Johann Christoph van Hille; African Entomology 1993, 1: 137–140. Obituary J.C. ‘Bob’ van Hille (1910–1991) On 30 December 1991 a tragic accident at his home in Frere Street, Grahamstown, closed the book on the life of Prof. J.C. van Hille at the age of 81 years. But, it was the incongruously violent passing of this gentle and cultured man that has left his family and friends bereft and bewildered. Johann Christoph van Hille, or ‘Bob’ as he was known to his colleagues, ‘Doc’ to generations of students or simply ‘Opa’ to his closely-knit family, was uniquely talented and much-loved personality in Grahamstown, and at his beloved Rhodes University which he served with distinction for 50 years. It is a daunting privilege to be entrusted to write a tribute to J.C. van Hille. Daunting, in that it is impossible to do full justice to his multifaceted personality in one short article. A privilege, in that having known Doc for 30 years, first as a student of his and later a colleague, it is a labour of great respect. For, after all those years, it can be honestly stated that never once was a derogatory utterance heard about this remarkable man. To facilitate the assignment I have also drawn freely from tributes published in the Grahamstown media, and especially from the personal reminiscences of his widow Gerda, and the moving eulogy delivered at Doc’s memorial service by his long-time colleague and friend, Prof. Brian Allanson. Bob van Hille was born on 31 August 1910 in Zwolle in the province of Overijssel, in the eastern part of the Netherlands. He completed his schooling in the Hague, at a school where his father was headmaster and which provided a classical education, including both Latin and Greek. His mother, C.M. van Hille-Garthé, was a well known authoress who published over 20 books, catering for adults as well as children. He met Gerda at University in Utrecht where they both read Zoology and Botany as majors, but a romance only developed after they had attained their respective M.Sc. degrees. When they became engaged they were both working on botanical Ph.D. research projects, Bob on photosynthesis and Gerda on nutrition transport in the hyphae of fungi and the phloem of higher plants. Production of Doctorates in those depressing times was very expensive, so Gerda attenuated her studies to help Bob with his experiments, and later in translating his thesis from Dutch into English. His dissertation, The quantitative relationship between rate of photosynthesis and chlorophyll content in Chlorella pyrenoidosa, was also defended orally in the Aula of the University of Utrecht on 30 June 1938. In October of the same year Bob and Gerda came to South Africa under rather tenuous circumstances. Shortly after they were married, they embarked on a cargo ship from Hamburg bound for Cape Town where a vague promise of a job awaited them. After several weeks at sea, including four Sundays, they arrived in South Africa where the expected position at a Botanical Institute did not materialize! They decided to make their own way in this country, cut off from family and friends by the pending war and with very little money. At first Bob taught a variety of subjects (including French) on a part-time basis at High Schools, and while they were happily living in Springbok he was offered a temporary Assistant Lectureship at Rhodes University. Their decision to accept the post was never regretted, and led to his long association with this University and to the enrichment of so many lives. There were some anxious days during the war when he was called for military service in the Dutch Army in Indonesia. This call-up was deferred as Gerda was expecting their second child and they were then forgotten for a time by the authorities. Fortunately, the war ended before Doc could commence his military career. At this stage Bob and Gerda became South African citizens. He began his tenure at Rhodes in October 1940, in the Department headed by Prof. Joseph Omer-Cooper, and immediately made his mark. In 1945 he was appointed to a permanent lectureship and began work on a revision of the South African Anthicidae, a group of beetles on which he became a world authority. In 1950 he was promoted to Senior Lecturer and in 1966, whilst on sabbatical leave in New York, was appointed Reader in Zoology, a title upgraded to Associate Professor in 1973. His time at Rhodes spanned that of three Heads of Department, Profs J. Omer-Cooper, D.W. Ewer and B.R. Allanson, all of whom he supported and guided, also acting as Head on several occasions. In the 1960s, under the leadership of Prof. Brian Allanson, the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Rhodes University underwent vital changes with the appointment of young enthusiastic staff members. Doc was the focal point of Departmental stability during this transformation phase. His quiet wisdom, humour in all situations and guidance was a primary factor in the emergence of the Department at Rhodes as a leading centre of excellence in biological teaching and research. He was a dedicated teacher whose lectures and practicals on invertebrates were a real treat, crammed with information and spiced with humour. What a privilege it was to have been taught by this inspiring and gifted man. During all this he continued his research on the Anthicidae, collecting whenever possible and publishing widely as he steadily built a scientific reputation as the leading authority on the group. A list of Doc’s publications, compiled by Dr Fred Gess of the Albany Museum, and published below bears testimony to this. His extensive collections are now safely deposited in this respected institution, a few hundred metres from where he carried out his life’s work. Dr van Hille retired from teaching at the end of 1975, but continued his research on Anthicidae right up to his untimely death. He went to the Department each day and, in 1989, undertook a study trip to museums in England and France when already in his late seventies. Leaving Gerda in England with their son Philip and family, he travelled alone to Paris to continue his research on anthicids. His great delight during that excursion was to find a theatre he had frequented as a student, to discover the same production running as during his previous visit. In the same year he was honoured with the award of Associate Professor Emeritus, and in 1990 a function was held at Rhodes to mark his 50 year association with the University. Doc van Hille’s life revolved around three broad focal points, his family, music and theatre, and his academic life as a teacher and researcher. In all of these his humour and wisdom shone through as he contributed richly to the lives of the people and communities within his sphere. As an academic, he also found time to serve on the Board of the Albany Museum for 24 years, nine of which were spent as Deputy Chairman. Upon retirement he was appointed an honorary research associate of the museum. He was also an authority on the historic signal towers that played such a significant role during the Settler/Xhosa confrontation of the last century. The present Director of the museum, Brian Wilmot, also a student of Doc’s had this to say ‘Doc was all that a gentleman should be. Not only was he a man of great scholarship and a fine example of a classical education but he had invaluable attributes of gentleness of character, a fine sense of humour and the ability to treat all people equally.’ An abiding passion and talent for music and theatre ran like a golden thread through his life, and it was here that he made a major contribution to the community of Grahamstown. When he and Gerda arrived in 1940 he was already an accomplished cellist and singer, with a very impressive bass baritone voice, and was welcomed with open arms by Grahamstown’s musical fraternity. He soon became chairman of the local Philharmonic Society and had a long-standing association with the Grahamstown Music Society, serving as Treasurer and Chairman for many years. He loved to play his cello as part of a small informal ensemble and there was always chamber music in the van Hille home. He also had a vital involvement in the Grahamstown Amateur Dramatic Society (GADS), Omnitheatre and the Grahamstown Players, appearing in many of their productions. He was particularly fond of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas and sang ‘lieder’ whenever the opportunity arose. He was a superb orator and raconteur with a special talent for languages as Prof. Allanson recalls: ‘We are all very sensitive of the fact that Bob was the epitome of an educated man. He spoke at least four languages and had a remarkable facility with language. His humorous, cogent, delightful and often spontaneous comment upon the current scene was always appreciated by his listeners whether at a farewell function, birthday parties or at more formal social occasions.’ His sense of humour was legendary and numerous anecdotes abound. I recall being summoned one Saturday morning with the request ‘Please come to town with me to find a hat.’ Upon enquiring what type of hat was required he replied ‘Oh, a very large straw hat.’ Pressing him further he explained ‘We must find this hat quickly for under it is my wife and she has all my money.’ For all this, it was especially his family that was the joy and pride of Bob and Gerda’s lives which they shared for so many years. At their fiftieth wedding anniversary he showed a three minute film of this event in 1937 and again his love and humour were to the fore. He said ‘We are about to see a black and white film of our wedding, this is quite fitting because the bride wore white and the groom wore black.’ His daughter-in-law, Maureen wrote ‘If I think back to when I first met Opa 20 years ago, the memories I have are of his quiet strength, his wonderful, sometimes dry sense of humour, the tranquillity that always surrounded him and his love of music. His ability to write in verse and rhyme was another of his gifts. At Easter he always drew on an egg for each member of the family a highlight of something they had accomplished during the year. I remember how he read the ‘Wind in the Willows’ first to Erica’s three children and then to my two boys.’ Bob and Gerda have four children, Erica, Cathy, Ernst and Philip, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. To each and all, the Committee and members of the Entomological Society of Southern Africa extends heartfelt condolences. All of us who were privileged to have known Doc mourn with you, but take solace from the fact that the world is a much richer place for his life’s journey through it. Bob van Hille died through a tragic misunderstanding. He and his family were holidaying at their beach home at Kasouga and had notified the police that they would be away. Doc returned to Grahamstown to collect a pair of spectacles to replace those he had lost on a walk. He decided to spend the night at his home. The police were notified that lights were being switched on and off, and they called to investigate. When Dr van Hille answered the door a shot was fired, fatally wounding him. A bursary fund has been established in memory of Prof. J.C. van Hille, which will go towards a post-graduate scholarship in Zoology and Entomology. Donations to this fund can be forwarded to the Doc van Hille Memorial Fund, The Bursaries Office, Rhodes University, P.O. Box 94, Grahamstown. 6140. M.W.M [Note: The author of the above obituary is Mervyn W. Mansell.]

AffiliationNatal Museum (1935-1966 ret.), South African Museum (1922-1935 )
Label AbbreviationJ.C. van Hille
Other NamesJ.C. van Hille

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