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Epilogue | Van Hilliard

Van Hilliard wowed people with athleticism, smarts and photography

ST. PETERSBURG — For a time during the early 1970s, Van Hilliard won 19 straight bicycle races, according to the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club.

She later won dozens of track and field events in her age group, and still holds three national records in the hammer throw and discus.

Between those pursuits and others, Ms. Hilliard taught psychology at the University of South Florida. Ms. Hilliard died March 11 shortly after collapsing in her home, an event her family suspects was caused by a heart attack. She was 69.

"She was sort of a Forrest Gump with a brilliant mind," said Dana Abadal, who described her mother as a "complete and utter genius."

She grew up in a Harrisburg, Pa., farming community, and was a National Merit Scholar in high school. After attending Allegheny College, she wrote for local newspapers and sold freelance photography. She moved to the Tampa Bay area in the early 1970s and took up cycling.

"You came to gauge your abilities by how well you could keep up with her," said Patrick Ruta, 63, a member of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club.

Ms. Hilliard returned to college and earned a doctorate at USF in Tampa.

"I had no idea who this person was who kept getting perfect scores on my exams," said Joy Clingman, a retired psychology professor who taught Ms. Hilliard as an undergraduate.

Ms. Hilliard taught psychology from 1995 to 2008 in St. Petersburg and Tampa. Throughout, she struck friends as measured and appropriate, quick with a comeback and generous to those less gifted than she was. She was good at demystifying sometimes daunting statistics and research methods, said psychology department chairman James McHale.

Strangers sometimes tested that patience. "She simply could not tolerate stupidity," her daughter said.

Ms. Hilliard was also an accomplished nature photographer. Her shot of a snowy egret catching a crab at Fort De Soto is currently being showcased by the North American Nature Photography Association. Other work hangs permanently in the regional chancellor's office at USF St. Petersburg.

She was at home March 11 with Clingman, who became a friend and roommate. "She was standing in the kitchen, getting ready to take some ibuprofen," Clingman said.

She collapsed and was pronounced dead at Bayfront Medical Center.

"She was a real superstar," said Bob Weiner, the national masters spokesman for USA Track and Field. "She just kept winning and winning. She showed there was no age limit in terms of continuing to maintain a healthy lifestyle by competition and training."

In 2001, USA Track and Field inducted Ms. Hilliard into its Masters Hall of Fame.

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Ms. Hilliard earned her doctorate at the University of South Florida in Tampa. An earlier version of this story gave another school.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Danielle Vanessa "Van" Hilliard

Born: April 18, 1941.

Died: March 11, 2011.

Survivors: Daughters Dana Abadal and her husband, Rafael, and Jessica Stach; son Daniel Hilliard; and five grandchildren.

Van Hilliard wowed people with athleticism, smarts and photography 03/22/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 10:54am]
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