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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Famous Folks I Have Known

By Carl Hansen

Most mornings, my wife and I awaken to music and news from our favorite oldies station.

In addition to being able to gloat a bit when the traffic reports are given, knowing our retired status means we don’t have to venture forth on the snow-covered or traffic clogged roads, we especially enjoy a daily segment of events in history for that particular day, which always ends with a list of people who celebrate their birthday on that date.

On May Day, one of the names mentioned was Judy Collins who is not only someone whose music I have enjoyed over the years but who was the vocalist a few times for a jazz combo in which I played piano.

That memory sparked others, for although I am neither rich nor famous, along the way I have personally met a few people who are. And my guess is that those of you who read and contribute to this blog have your own list of such people you have known along the way.

The list of such people from my past is small but without a doubt one of them is a household name many of you will recognize, especially if you think back on your high school and college days. That name: Cliff Hillegas.

Doesn’t ring a bell, you say? How about Cliff Notes, those ubiquitous study guides some of us relied on with their famous yellow and black covers? I don’t think I would have made it through my Ph.D. Comprehensives in Philosophy without Cliff Notes on Plato, Arisotle, Kant, Hume, and others.

But little did I realize not only that there was a real Cliff behind these guides but that I would one day have the privilege of meeting him up close and personal.

The connection came when I was president of Midland Lutheran College in Nebraska and discovered that Cliff was an alumnus - possibly the most famous alumnus of Midland.

He came to the college from a small town in western Nebraska during the Great Depression and as he tells it, his father lost their farm just as he completed his freshman year. Convinced that meant an end to his education, he notified the college he would not be able to return in the fall, since he lacked the funds to cover tuition, room, and board.

At that point, the business manager at Midland took a calculated risk, inviting Cliff to continue his education, offering to defer the cost of tuition and fees if he could find work to cover his living expenses.

He found work as a stock boy in a five and dime, earning 25 cents and hour and when another stock boy broke his leg, his work time and income doubled allowing him to stay in college.

Completing his degree, Cliff found work in Canada as a traveling salesman for a publishing company that offered a small selection of study guides which gave him the idea of doing this himself.

Returning to Nebraska, he and his brother took out a loan to cover start-up costs, contacted professors at the University of Nebraska to write the content and printed the initial copies in their garage. Cliff Notes was born.

Within a short time, sales enabled him to repay not only the loan but also the debt he owed to Midland. One of my memories of Cliff is sitting in his office surrounded by bookshelves filled with Cliff Notes translated in many languages, providing study guides in a wide array of subjects.

Little could I know that day that I would also personally know someone who would write one of these guides. For proudly placed on one of my bookshelves today is a revised Cliff Notes edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest written by my son, Dr. Matthew Carl Hansen, who earned his Ph.D at UNL and who is now on the faculty of Boise State University.

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Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


I envy your brushes with the rich and famous and my experiences pale in comparison. My one autographed photo of Chill Wills (the voice of Frances the Talking Mule) and a brief encounter with Ben Vereen when he traveled with the Sesame Street show about covers it for me. How proud you should be of your son and we see you are. However I definitely could relate to listening to the weather report and smugly feeling superior to be retired and no longer having to face the harsh elements in rush hour traffic.

Enjoyed your brush with fame.

When I was on the house staff of Children's Hospital in St. Louis over 50 years ago, I was called upon to accompany Red Skelton and his crew to the St. Louis Zoo where Red put on his usual show for the kids by joining in the monkey show, riding model motorcycles, etc. The reason for my inclusion in the party was the fact that Red had asthma and was afraid the monkeys might give him an attack. For that reason I carried a syringe of adrenalin in my pocket. Fortunately he had no problems and when the show was over one of his staff approached me and said he'd be glad to have an autographed photograph of Red mailed to me; I had expected a tip of perhaps 5 or 10 dollars but was willing to accept the photo and gave him my address. What capped off the whole episode is the fact that I never got even the photo.

Cliff Notes, are the bane of all English teachers who want their kids to read a certain book, but without Cliff Notes, I doubt many grads would even make it through college. Time to read is sure at a premium! Thanks for sharing.

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