The Weather Cadet Generation: Clifton Hillegass
Thousands of young people learned meteorology during World War II. This series profiles members of the “Weather Cadet Generation” who had remarkable postwar careers. (Read the series introduction.)
Cliff Hillegass didn’t expect to become the lazy student’s best friend as he learned meteorology at the University of Chicago.
He'd pursued a master’s degree in physics and geology at the University of Nebraska, but left without completing his thesis in 1939. He went to work in the college bookstore and married his classmate Catherine Galbraith.
After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army Air Force and was sent to the University of Chicago in 1942. (Catherine's science education prepared her for work as a clerk for the Manhattan Project.) Later promoted to Captain, Cliff taught meteorology to aircraft navigators Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana during the war.
Returning to the bookshop after being discharged, he helped it become a wholesale distributor of textbooks. In 1958 he entered into an agreement with a Canadian colleague to market the outlines of 16 of Shakespeare’s most assigned plays. After renaming the outlines Cliffs Notes, he invented the American Market for study guides, "with his wife typing letters to all his friends in the book trade offering them for sale and his young daughter Linda sitting on the floor stuffing the letters in envelopes.”
By 1989, the bumble bee-colored booklets were earning $11 million dollars a year, as the popular if notorious study aids became synonymous with intellectual shortcuts and shallow understanding. Hillegass donated 10% of annual profits to charities in Nebraska. He sold Cliffs Notes in 1998 and passed away in 2001.
- Shaila K. Dewan, “Clifton Keith Hillegass Dies; Cliffs Notes Creator Was 83,” New York Times, May 7, 2001.
- Richard Piersol, “CliffsNotes co-founder dies at 94,” Lincoln Journal Star, February 10, 2014.
- Dennis Wepman, “Hillegass, Clifton Keith,” American National Biography Online, http://www.anb.org/articles/10/10-02279.html