In memoriam: Harry H. Hilton, June 24, 1926 - March 29, 2022

3/31/2022 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Harry H. Hilton
Harry H. Hilton

Although Harry H. Hilton retired from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1990, he continued to conduct research and teach a graduate course in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. As an AIAA Fellow with over 500 papers in journals or conference proceedings and 11 book chapters, Hilton was an internationally recognized authority in solid mechanics, viscoelasticity, and aero-viscoelasticity.

Hilton was born June, 24 1926 in Teplice, Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia.  In the summer 1938, ahead of the German occupation, he and his parents moved to the south of Lyon. Fortunately, his parents hired a tutor to help him learn French before they left Teplice. In Lyon, at 12 years old, Hilton attended a French high school. In September 1940, the family traveled to Casablanca, Morocco, where the U.S. immigration quota was open due to the low number of Czech citizens in Africa at the time. About three months later, they obtained immigration visas. They went to northern Spain, then boarded a ship to the United States, arriving in New York City in January 1941. Then 16 years old, Hilton quickly became proficient in English to earn his high school diploma from a high school in NYC with 6,000 students.

Harry Hilton, 1949
Harry Hilton joined the faculty at Illinois in 1949 at the age of 23. Left is Allister Fraser, Ph.D. '68 

In early 1943, Hilton entered New York University. Due to the war, NYU put Hilton in an accelerated program. He was a senior in just a year and a half. During the final stages of WWII he spent two years in the United States Army and in 1946, upon his service discharge, he reentered NYU and obtained a B.S. in 1947 in aeronautical engineering and an M.S. in 1949 in compressible aerodynamics.

Before coming to Champaign-Urbana, Hilton spent a summer at the University of Michigan taking three courses from highly respected professors such as Stephen Timoshenko, whose work Hilton later drew upon in 2018. He arrived at UIUC in the fall of ’49 having finished all of the course work required for his doctorate. He began his career as full-time instructor of aeronautical engineering at the age of 23 and completed his Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics with a mathematics minor in 1951.

A large body of Hilton’s research was in the area of viscoelasticity, a property in which solid bodies exhibit behaviors, typically associated with liquids.

“Harry Hilton was instrumental in developing some of the early mathematical theories that allowed us to understand and predict how viscoelastic bodies behave, particularly as they relate to creep collapse,” said AE Associate Professor Kai James, who works in the area of aeroelasticity. “There comes a point in a column, for example, undergoing creep at which it will eventually just collapse under its load. Harry developed a theory that allowed us to predict the precise timing that it would happen.”

Hilton became a full professor at Illinois in 1957. While H.S. Stillwell was department head, AE’s first, Hilton served as associate department head, then department head from 1977 to 1985.  

Dean Dan Drucker, Steve Hoffman, Eric Barnes, Harry Hilton, and AIAA faculty adviser Prof. Ken Sivier
Left to right: Dean Dan Drucker, students Steve Hoffman and Eric Barnes,  Dept. Head Harry Hilton, and AIAA faculty adviser Prof. Ken Sivier

About his years as head of the department, Hilton said in a 2018 interview, “The problem was that when I started as department head the enrollment, which in ’69 was very high, had collapsed, and it was down in the 150s. And while we, at that period in the 70s had to let go of six assistant professors, we still had a payroll which was insolvent, when I inherited the job. Luckily we had a sympathetic dean at the time, Dan Drucker, who maintained that we needed a standalone aerospace department. I worked out a deal with him where we would send one or two professors a year to teach one course in another department, and in that manner, we covered one third of their salary. That went on for quite a while. I set the example by teaching CS101. So we survived, and I think we’re the better for it. Dan was certainly proved right. Look at us today. We flourished.”

During the summers of 1989 and 1990, Hilton was an assistant dean in what was then called the College of Engineering. Prior to his retirement in 1990, he taught every undergraduate course in AE except propulsion. Additionally, he has held appointments as A. M. Freudenthal Visiting Professor, Leopold-Franzens-Universität, Innsbruck, Austria, and Charles E. Schmidt Distinguished Visiting Professor, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton.

In addition to being a Fellow in both AIAA and ASC, some of his other professional awards include: Incomplete List of Excellent Teachers in ‘76, ‘77, ‘78, ‘82, ‘83, ‘84, ‘85, ‘03, and ‘04; Bahai Human Rights Award in 1984 and 1994; AIAA 25-, 40-, and 60-year membership Award; AIAA Faculty Adviser Award; Pierce Award Finalist in 1992; AAUP Membership Award in 2006; Association of College Honor Societies Award in 2000; Charles E. Schmidt Distinguished Visiting Professor, Florida Atlantic University from 1997 to 2001 and 2007; and the AIAA Dayton-Cincinnati Aerospace Sciences Symposium Best Paper Award in ’02 and ‘04. In 2020, Hilton received the Vebleo Scientist Award.

Hilton was also civically active. He was a 10-year member of the board of directors of A Women’s Fund, which is a shelter for battered women, served as chair of the City of Champaign Human Relations Commission and as the Champaign County Democratic Committee secretary. His activities as co-chair of the Champaign-Urbana Council for Integration helped bring about the local integration in employment, housing, and public schools in 1964. He was very active in the ACLU earning the ACLU Stone Award for Lifetime Commitment to Civil Liberties. He continued to be very active in the UIUC chapter of the American Association of University Professors and recently served as its president.

Lois and Harry Hilton at the 2018 AE awards banquet
Lois and Harry Hilton at the 2018 AE awards banquet 

In the 2018 interview, Hilton also recalled a job offer he got just before deciding to come to Illinois. In 1947, after he received his master’s degree, he was at a conference in New York and was approached by the chief of structures at a government office.

“He tried to convince me, forget graduate education, come work for us,” Hilton said. “It’s a good thing I didn’t. I’d still be there filling out spreadsheets. Anyway, if you look back on life, a lot of it is accidents—in the sense that you stumble on opportunities. They’re not planned.”

Hilton and his first wife Joan, who died in 1969, had three children: Constance, Victoria, and Alexander. He later married the love of his life Lois Grimason and added to their extended family: Luisa French, Susan and husband Reggie Worlds, Janey and husband David Dvorak and Peter Pruitt. Between them, they have 12 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

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This story was published March 31, 2022.