Mystery Book

by Brenda Givins from Ottawa, Ontario

In 1998, I was a 41 yr old student finishing a BA at the University of Ottawa. My favourite professor was Dr John Spencer Hill, who taught Shakespeare and Milton. His rapport with his students was simply exceptional. A gifted lecturer who genuinely loved students and teaching, he would sit cross-legged on his desk, a Hershey bar in one hand, a bottle of Coke in the other, and weave magic. He also wrote mystery novels and would often wear a deerstalker on campus, in the best Sherlock Holmes tradition, with a pipe dangling out of his mouth. 

On 18th of February, he announced we'd be discussing King Lear the next day – and warned us that he would probably cry; the tragic figure of Lear always affected him deeply. We looked forward to finding out why and sharing that experience with him.  

But in February 1998, Ottawa was in the grip of a devastating ice storm.  

When we returned to class the next evening, the head of department came in with tragic news. John Hill was dead from unknown causes. The stress of keeping his old, beloved Cornwall home going during the outages, the long drives from Cornwall to the university, may have been just too much for him. He was only 54.

Some of us went to a lounge, numb and shocked, in tears. We were strangers really, but we all started talking about how we felt about him. It helped, but we decided to do something immediate to express our grief and to acknowledge him for enlarging our hearts and minds - so, our next step was - you may have guessed - to go to the nearest convenience store, buy a bottle of coke and a Hershey's chocolate bar. We set them by his office door. In a few days, the door was a shrine of candles and notes for a beloved teacher. But the gifts of his life didn’t end there for me.  

I had nurtured a secret desire to purchase his novels and get his autograph, but had been too shy to approach him. I decided to buy his books anyways, to pay him that one last respect – but I couldn’t find them. I pestered several chains, only to be told they were out of print. Eventually, I wound up at a specialty bookstore, Prime Crime. Sure enough, the lady behind the counter remembered John Hill. He had been a regular customer. She promised to look into my request, knowing what it meant to me.  

Days passed. Another clerk from the store called to say my order was in. I asked where they had come from; she said, "the States somewhere". Once I got home with the books, I opened one only to tear up when I found, scrawled across the title page, his big, bold, unmistakable autograph.  

I treasure it, a memory of a warm, charismatic man and teacher.