James H. Hilton

HiltonHe never quite finished high school. He grew up on a farm where the work was done with one horse, a homemade plow and a handmade triangle harrow. When he tried to enroll as a sophomore at Iowa State he was turned down at first because his freshman year of college had been at an unaccredited institution and his grades weren't very good, and he was reminded of his high school deficiency. What would you guess that young man's chances of success were? Would he ever get a college degree? Would be he able to get a job if he did? Well, he did get a degree and he did get a job. Eventually, his job turned into being president of his alma mater.

James H. Hilton graduated with a B.S. degree in animal husbandry in 1923, when it was called "cow college." He was the only Iowa State University alumnus to hold the position of president in its history. When he retired in 1965 after 12 years as the tenth president, it was a vast educational complex with an international reputation. Of Hilton's numerous educational achievements, three stand out because of their widespread impact on Iowa:

  • He presided over the school's major growth years, marked by expanding educational programs, rising enrollments, spreading physical facilities and a change in name from college to university.
  • He pushed for strong programs in the humanities to augment the school's scientific, technological and professional courses.
  • He was the driving force behind development of the Iowa State Center, which includes the coliseum named in his honor as well as a concert hall, theater and continuing-education center.

His administration was characterized by extensive growth in physical facilities, enrollment, course offerings and public service. Enrollment rose from 7,800 to nearly 12,500, "book value" of the physical plant increased from $28 million to $71 million, course offerings were broadened, particularly in the humanities, and the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts became the Iowa State University of Science and Technology during his presidency.

Although the Iowa State Center might be considered his major contribution to the University, it was not his greatest satisfaction. He often stated that he derived greater satisfaction from the intangible achievements in getting necessary funding to improve salaries, insurance programs and retirement.

Hilton was born on a farm near Hickory, North Carolina, in 1899, and graduated from Startown High School, Newton, North Carolina, in the Piedmont section, the oldest of five children. His mother had taught school, his father finished eighth grade and settled down to operate a 100-acre farm. It was the classic "extended" family of parents, children and grandparents—nine persons in a small farm house where children slept in a trundle bed which, when not in use, was pushed under their parents' bed. The house was heated with fireplaces and the kitchen stove, water came from a nearby well, baths were taken in a wood tub and Jim's mother made lye for soap by running water through the fireplace ashes.

Farming, unbelievably primitive compared to that which this young man would promote later in life, consisted principally of wheat, cotton and sweet potatoes. Cotton-picking was for the children and marketing the potatoes was a rare adventure. As the oldest child, young Jim would accompany his father on the 30-mile trip by team and wagon to the market in Charlotte. They would camp at the edge of town after the day's trip, sell their potatoes the next morning and drive back home.

His education began in a two-room grade school and continued in one of the "farm life schools" typical in North Carolina in those days. Because this school was five miles from his home—much too far to commute—Jim was a boarding student and he was launched on the first of a series of educational experiences all of which were marked by one near-disastrous financial crisis after another:

After my first semester, family funds were exhausted, so I got a job milking and feeding two dairy cows at the school. This lasted only a couple of months because a hunter accidentally shot one of the cows and even though I put a splint on her leg she had to be destroyed. After that I worked on the school farm for part of my room and board.

Of another experience, he writes,

I answered an ad for a taxi driver and, though I had never before operated an automobile, I was hired to drive visitors up into the nearby mountain area. I got my first load to its destination about sundown, borrowed a lantern that I tied to the front of the car, and perilously crawled back down the mountainside. It occurred to me that I wasn't really cut out to be a taxi driver under those circumstances.

At one point he was ready to drop out of high school, at least until I had saved enough money to. . . eat in the regular dining room. I had had enough of trying to do my own cooking."

Things at North Carolina State College in Raleigh were little different. Here he was one of two who looked after thirty cattle and milked twelve cows by hand each morning and night. The hours were 4 am until 7 pm. Then he lived in the college hog barn and milked fifteen or twenty cows a day for room and board.

There in North Carolina he made his first contact with the Extension service, building silos and vats for dipping sheep to augment school finances. His transfer to Iowa State was an attempt to get to another Land-Grant institution with a better animal husbandry program. He narrowed his choices down to Cornell and Iowa State but again finances tipped the balance. A friend offered to lend him money to come to Iowa State. He did not know of the negative attitude that Iowa State had taken regarding his record because his North Carolina transcript was sent to Ames late in August and Iowa State's response was not available when he left home. The admissions office outlined his scanty and inadequate record—not finishing high school (but lacking only a few months), North Carolina's lack of accreditation at that time and his "not very good grades." As he wrote: "It was all true. I was stunned." A personal appeal to Miss Kelly in the registrar's office finally opened the Iowa State door to this homesick and frightened North Carolina youth. In such small ways are entire lives changed, observed Dr. Hilton.

As at Raleigh, young Jim went from one job to another. . . among other things, cleaning President Pearson's office." Imagine his response if someone had told him that he would one time be sitting in that president's chair! He did carpenter work on the construction of Oak and Elm lodges (not the present buildings), helped make ice cream, ran a mimeograph machine and did chores in the animal husbandry department. But all that was not enough and he dropped out to work full time in the spring and summer of 1921. He landed as a 4-H club agent in Fairfield. He wrote of this experience:

It was my duty to recruit 4-H club members, and that meant the use of a car, which I didn't have. The county agent did have a spare 1913 Ford touring car that he let me use. Its original battery had given out and, since I couldn't find a replacement to fit the long battery frame on the running board, I had to use a short battery, putting it inside the car and hooking it up every time I took a trip. The old Ford had rain curtains stored under the back seat, and with every rain I went through the laborious process of hauling them out, hanging them in place, and then returning them when the sun shone again. For six months I fought that old car and its curtains and battery, but I thoroughly enjoyed the work.

In spite of breaks in course work, the young North Carolina boy was at home in the ag college judging contests. He garnered places on dairy, swine and the International Livestock judging teams and competed in five national contests. He was proud of that accomplishment. But judging and the travel involved absorbed the young man's finances and he graduated $800 in debt. By present-day yardsticks that would be the equivalent of several thousand dollars, for his salary on his first after-college job, county agent in Greene County, paid $200 per month. After his trials and tribulations of all of his academic efforts, he had finally achieved one goal. But others lay ahead. I knew I had to deliver on my own and that my whole future might well depend upon how I did in Greene County. He did well and one high point was assembling 150 4-H youngsters in an auto caravan and bringing them to the campus with long streamers advertising the event "Greene County Iowa State College." The group played baseball on central campus and had its picture taken on the steps of Beardshear. It was while he was in Greene County that he married his college sweetheart, Lois Baker of Nevada, Iowa, whom he credited as the one person who had the greatest influence on my life, and was in great measure responsible for whatever success I had from that time forward. The Hiltons moved to Purdue where he accepted a job as a Dairy Extension specialist. By 1938 he was a full professor. Our future seemed assured at Purdue, so we bought our first home and we prepared to spend the rest of our lives there. The Hilton's remained there for nineteen years.

But North Carolina State invited him to head the department of animal husbandry and promised him additional promotions. The family moved, in 1945, and three years later he became dean of agriculture there. By 1949, however, Iowa State was attempting to lure him back with an offer to succeed H. H. Kildee, dean of agriculture. In 1952, he received a similar offer from the University of Illinois.

The communication that changed the course of events for both Dr. Hilton and Iowa State, however, came to him, unbelievably, penciled on a two-cent postal card! The late V. B. Hamilton, then a member of the Iowa Board of Regents and a friend from college days, asked Dr. Hilton if he would be interested in the presidency at Iowa State. I didn't take the inquiry very seriously. In any case, that two-cent postal car led to a formal offer that coincided with a similar offer from North Carolina State. Iowa State won and Dr. Hilton did not even come to Ames to review the opportunity.

That was in 1953.

One of Dr. Hilton's greatest accomplishments that was of some pride to him was getting the designation of Iowa State College changed to Iowa State University. In his memoirs, he mentions that Dr. Virgil Hancher, president of the University of Iowa, was quite opposed to the suggestion and the matter became an issue of consequence in the legislature. At one time, 26 senators said they would oppose the name change. But, he wrote, with the help of a number of senators and intensive personal conferences with every member, it finally came out of the senate with unanimous approval. He saw improving faculty salaries and retirement benefits as a top priority assignment. And, of course, there was the need for the Iowa State Center, at times referred to as "Hilton's dream." The original dream foresaw only one building instead of the four eventually built at a cost of $20 million. Of the complex, wrote Dr. Hilton, exceeded my fondest hopes and dreams. The original building for the complex, C. Y. Stephens Auditorium, was built with contributions, primarily from another alumnus from North Carolina and a college classmate, C. Y. Stephens. The Hilton Coliseum named in his honor was built with student contributions.

Another highlight of his years also provoked a crisis of sorts, but which now seems somewhat amusing. Not so at the time. Soviet Chairman Nikita Kruschev came to visit the campus in 1959, with attendant statewide and even national attention. A student prank in connection with the visit caught national coverage. Security was everywhere, but appearing near the center of things at one point were four students wearing trench coats and slouch hats and carrying violin cases. The Russian leader thought the matter uproarious. The Secret Service didn't.

Dr. Hilton summarized his years at Iowa State in this manner: The years in which I was privileged to serve as president of Iowa State were exciting, stimulating and rewarding. It was, by accident perhaps, the best period in the long history of the Land-Grant college system to be chief administrator of such an institution.

At 65, he gave up the presidency and for two years served as the University's director of development. During 1967-71, he was executive secretary and treasurer of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1969, his wife of forty-six years with whom he had three children, Eleanor, Helen and James G., died. In 1970, he married Helen LeBaron, then dean of home economics at Iowa State; they made their home in Ames.

He received an M.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1937 and a Ph.D. degree from Purdue University in 1945. Honorary doctor of science degrees came from Cornell College (1954), North Carolina State University (1955) and Iowa State (1965). He received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Lenoir Rhyne College, Hickory, North Carolina (1965).

Hilton served as a director of The Quaker Oats Company, Federal Reserve Board of Chicago, Northwestern Bell Telephone Company, and Farm Foundation of Chicago. He followed Dr. Charles E. Friley as president when Friley retired.

© 2000, Department of Animal Science, Iowa State University. All rights reserved.