YAM Notes: January/February 2019

By Martin M. Snapp, Jr.

I’ll bet there aren’t many of us who haven’t wondered at one time or another how much better the world would be if Bill Hilgendorf, our first class secretary, had been elected president of the United States, as we were sure he would. But Bill never got the chance, falling to his death in a freak accident while hiking through the hills of Hong Kong only a few weeks after graduation.

Now, more than 50 years later, Chris Kule and Dave Richards are spearheading a fund-raising campaign to commission our classmate, the distinguished portrait artist Bob Jones, to paint a formal portrait of Bill, to be hung somewhere on the Yale campus. (You can view some of Bob’s work at his website.) Bob has generously volunteered to accept a significant discount from his usual fee. “I never met Bill, though I am familiar with his legend,” Bob says. “Indeed, there are many of my portrait subjects whom I have never had the pleasure of meeting before painting them. Sadly, in the case of posthumous portraits like Bill’s, I will never have that pleasure. Yet, in the long hours spent painting them, I feel I come to know them.

“A considerable number of the people I have known through portraiture have become fast friends. This is perhaps not surprising, since people who merit a portrait usually have an interesting story to tell—one that is a joy to discover. I have often said, ‘The focal point of a portrait is the character of the subject.’ That character is embodied in the face. I look forward to painting Bill’s portrait. I look forward to understanding better his story and to capturing the character that marked him as a man. If I am lucky, by the time I have finished the commission he and I—though we have never met—will have become good friends.

“Often, my portrait subjects are of a certain age but prefer to be painted from a photo that captures them at the height of their powers, years or decades before. In Bill’s case, since he never reached a ripe old age, I will necessarily be painting him in his prime from a time when those who knew him may remember him best. I am honored to have been selected for this commission. As always, my goal in completing the work will be to do justice to the subject and to those who knew and loved him.”

If you have any pictures of Bill that might help Bob in his task, please send them to Chris. And if you’d like to contribute to the fund-raising campaign, he’s the contact for that, too.

Meanwhile, if you’re going to be anywhere near Providence, Rhode Island, in April, be sure to catch a symposium honoring the late, great Vincent Scully (and I don’t mean the Dodgers announcer) at the International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, April 24–28. The panel will be chaired by one of Scully’s protégés, our own Bert Rodríguez, professor of architecture and director of the Henry H. Wiss Center for Theory and History of Art and Architecture at Virginia Tech.

Sadly, Stephen Dahl reports that George Billock died in October. “Classmates remember George as a disc jockey at WYBC, where he worked with Jim Bourne, and broadcast jazz and classical,” says Stephen. “George was in Silliman for three years but left in 1965 to join the Peace Corps, although he was later called into the Army and ended up doing intelligence work.

“I had known George since 1958 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where we were in the same school, and I was surprised to see him outside Phelps Gate my first day at Yale. George was a brilliant lawyer and profoundly musical. He introduced me to Wagner and recorded two of my concerts given at Ezra Stiles. George graduated with the class of ’73, I believe, then went to University of Virginia law school, whereafter he pursued a legal career in Washington and Philadelphia.”

Jim continues the story: “I met George in the spring of freshman year when we both heeled WYBC. We didn’t really connect then, and George wasn’t elected to membership. To his credit, he returned in the fall; and this time he was elected, and he and I connected. George was a musical polymath, but our common ground was jazz, and we had a great time riffing on Cannonball Adderley’s intro to ‘This Here’ and doing shows under the names Baxter Lefcourt and Dexter Mountebank (the former taken from George Crater’s humor column in Downbeat). He visited my family, and I recall him discussing the law with my father. And we went to the Newport Jazz Festival, sleeping in my car parked at the side of the road until a Newport cop tapped on the window (thankfully, in the morning) and suggested that we move along.

“I lost track of George after he left Yale, but he looked me up a couple of years later when I was living in Cambridge. We met at a coffee shop, and he told me about his experiences in the Army in Vietnam. I was very troubled by what I heard, and that was the last time I saw him. More recently I learned from Stephen Dahl that he and George were old friends and that George was in bad shape. I talked with George on the phone after Stephen put us in touch, but I don’t honestly remember much about the conversation. Some time after that I attended a talk by Karl Marlantes at a local community college. When Karl took questions from the audience, I asked if he thought it would be helpful for a Vietnam veteran to go back to the country and come to terms with his past. The man I was thinking of when I asked the question was George.”