In Memoriam: Hillary Gravendyk, 1979-2014

Hillary Gravendyk, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College, died May 10, 2014, at the age of 35, after a long illness. Colleagues, students and family members remember her life as one of joy and humor, love and laughter.

"You always think about Hillary smiling, or laughing, or somewhere in that wonderful borderland between those two things," said Kevin Dettmar, the chair of Pomona's English department. "She made the environment joyous; she was just so fun to be with."

Gravendyk "ate, slept, drank poetry," he said. "She just was deeply immersed in American poetry."

She loved to teach and spend time with her students. 

"She was very present; she was very real," said Sophie Soprani PO '15, who took American Poetic Modernisms with Gravendyk. "She was interested in what you were interested in, she loved to talk about food, she wore lots of colors."

Pomona English professor Joseph Jeon affirmed Gravendyk's appreciation for food. 

She was "a real foodie" and cooked elaborate meals for her colleagues, Jeon said.

"She didn't take a good meal, or a good drink, or a good joke, or a good poem for granted," Dettmar said. "She really relished it."

She didn't waste time.

"My wife was both creative and driven and was aware from a young age that she wasn't going to live into a long retirement," said Benjamin Burrill, Gravendyk's husband. "As such, she decided to do all the things in life that she really wanted to do, without delay. So she decided she wanted to go to grad school, she didn't want to have a desk job, and she wanted to become a teacher and a poet. So she did." 

Gravendyk earned degrees at Tulane University, the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley. She began teaching at Pomona in spring 2010. 

One of her signature classes, Dettmar said, was her California Poetry class, which examined "the evolution of a distinctively California poetic tradition that builds on California's myths of itself, California geography and place, California flora and fauna."

"That class was just amazing," Lauren Rosenfield PO '11 said. "We were a small group, and Hillary's love of the poetry that she was teaching us was incredibly infectious and kind of inspired us all. I feel like we all started reading more poetry over the semester."

In the classroom, she was "really caring and loving, but not overly sentimental," said Ronny Kerr PO '10, who took California Poetry along with Rosenfield. Kerr recalled a time he led class discussion, an assignment he was nervous for. But he drew confidence from Gravendyk's presence. The class took place outside that day, and everyone was engaged with his presentation.

"That was definitely a highlight of my entire four years at Pomona," he said.

Gravendyk encouraged her students to speak straightforwardly, in class and outside of it.

"There was absolutely no bullshit with her," Soprani said.

Gravendyk would push students to back up their claims in class, Rosenfield said. She insisted that comments about poetry were "an actual response to what was happening on the page."

She took her teaching seriously but infused class with humor. She skillfully led class discussions, and she knew just how to help students plan an essay.

"She was just a great thought partner," Rosenfield said.

Although she was on medical leave throughout the 2013-2014 school year, she kept in touch with students and was always willing to read a manuscript.

Professionally, Gravendyk was gaining attention with both her scholarship and poetry, Jeon said.

Both were informed by illness. 

"Having the body and its needs and its failings so prominent in her thinking really powerfully affected the work that she ended up doing," Dettmar said.

Influenced by her poetic sensibility, Gravendyk's scholarship examined the intersection of phenomenology and disability studies.

"The combination of the two things, I thought, was really interesting, really original," Jeon said. 

She wrote her book of poetry Harm after undergoing a double lung transplant.

"She was really open in her poetry, as she sort of is as a person, about her experiences going through these really hard, horrible times in her life," Rosenfield said. 

At a memorial service at Berkeley, Rosenfield said that the poet Robert Hass, with whom Gravendyk studied, said that "nobody has written about the experience of being in the hospital or being post-surgery in the way that Hillary did." 

Her poetry was "quite honest and frank," Jeon said. "She was often quite funny."

As a teacher, poet, mentor and friend, Gravendyk profoundly touched the lives of those she knew. 

"Before she was gone, and before I even knew that she was ill, she was a completely inspiring person," Rosenfield said. "Her passion for poetry, and English and life in general, was completely infectious."

Illness did not keep her from creating, or laughing, or loving. 

"She was fearless," Soprani said.

Gravendyk is survived by Burrill; her parents, John and Katherine Gravendyk; and her sister, Megan Gravendyk.