Delbert Roy Hillers, the W.W. Spence Professor of Semitic Languages in the Department of Near Eastern Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, died of cancer on Saturday, Sept. 25, at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 66.
Hillers was considered one of the world's leading scholars of the Old Testament and the languages of that period. His impact in his field and at Hopkins was enormous, say those who worked with him.
"Dell had a brilliant intellect, and he made very important contributions to scholarship," said Jerrold Cooper, Hillers' friend and longtime colleague in the department. "He was a man of very broad interests--music, literature and philosophy--and he possessed a very strong social consciousness."
Hillers was chair of the department from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1976 to 1979. Though he became emeritus in 1994, he was actively engaged in research and working with graduate students until he died. He also is credited with carrying the department through its "lean years," 1974 to 1984.
"There wasn't much money, and we were down to a skeleton department," Cooper explained. "However, Dell's field, Old Testament studies, remained popular; there was far more demand for it among graduate students than other areas like Egyptology or Assyriology. So for about 10 years, Dell carried the department. He supervised far more graduate students and dissertations than the rest of us. Because of him we were able to raise money for two honorary chairs, and ever since, our department has enjoyed a string of successes. I really believe he saved us and the entire field for the university."
Hillers was born in South Dakota and raised in the Midwest. After studying at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., where he was ordained as a Lutheran minister, he moved to Baltimore in 1957 to pursue graduate work at Hopkins. He met Patricia Mays Turnbaugh that year, and the two married in 1958. Prior to earning his doctorate in 1963, he was for two years pastor of St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Baltimore.
"What was so amazing about Dell," Cooper said, "is that he wrote books like Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, a theoretical work read by both specialists and nonspecialists, and that he was equally talented with the very precise, demanding and exhaustive research required of Palmyrene Aramaic Texts, where he was perhaps one of 100 people in the world who could even decipher those inscriptions."
In addition to his wife, Hillers is survived by two
children, Eve Hillers Waring of Springfield, Va., and Samuel
Hillers of Boston, and four sisters.