Boyertown Area Community Loses Teacher, Coach, Mentor, Friend In Bob Hillegas


Photo: Sue Begany

by Ross Smith

Last week the Boyertown Community lost a teacher, coach, mentor, and friend in Bob Hillegas.

Coach Hill was a three-sport athlete who graduated from Boyertown Area High School in 1963. He went on to Kutztown University where he played football and earned his teaching degree. Eventually, he came back to teach at Boyertown Jr High East. Officially, Coach Hillegas was a geography teacher and a sports coach; but if we really dig into it, he taught everyone who knew him much, much more than that.

I first met Coach Hill when I walked into my third period geography class on my very first day of junior high. I had been in the Boyertown District for 2 years at that point, coming from Gilbertsville Elementary. We were a small class, only about 22 or 23 of us. It was a somewhat scary thing for me. My small circle of friends were now scattered across a building that seemed 20 miles long. I remember so vividly how Coach would stand at the door and greet us. He didn’t know our names yet, but having a teacher just say, “Good morning!” eased this wary 7th grader's mind.

I learned a great deal about geography in that room, but more important was the way the man made such a connection with his students. He made us all feel a part of the class; but he made someone like me feel just a little less awkward. And It wasn’t just me. Since news of his passing was released, people have texted me similar thoughts. These heartfelt messages came from kids in his classroom. To him, it didn’t matter if you played sports or not. You were his student and he showed you that he genuinely cared about you. In this day of data-driven lessons, he made the connections that endure and matter. We didn’t learn only geography. Many days we were taught a life lesson that was far more important.

Coach Hillegas and I met up again when I moved onto Boyertown Area Senior High. I was a manager for the basketball team, and he was the assistant coach. I was approached about being a part of the team as manager, and since I had many  friends who played on the team, I said, “Why not?”

I did not have a car at the time, so I walked home after practice most days. Coach saw me walking home one day. Because he was one of the adults who truly cared about people, he stopped and asked me where I lived. I said, “in Gilbertsville.” It turns out my house was on his way home. He took me home every night in his mile long station wagon. I got some of the most valuable life lessons I have ever learned in that station wagon. And for an extra treat, Coach liked going through McDonald’s drive thru lane. Sometimes I think he would have given me a ride even if it wasn’t on his way. Coach just cared about people.

Later in life, I had a chance to work for him as his football statistician for 5 years. These were the best 5 years I’ve had in sports. The staff was comprised of many of my former teachers. We were a true team, in every sense of the word. Coach Bob Hillegas didn’t just coach football on that field; he coached life. Whatever the score was at the end of the night, (and we won a lot of games) the lesson in the middle of that huddle was bigger than football. In all instances, there was always a life lesson, for sure. Then came a lesson about family. He taught us that no matter what, if you wear that uniform, or if you go to our school, whether you’re a current or future Bear, you are part of our family. We knew there is no such thing as a former Bear: once a Bear, always a Bear. Thousands of students and players are part of that family. Still today. It wasn’t just his football players. Every kid he ever coached or taught knew he or she was part of one of the greatest families. It doesn’t get any better than that.

After the last game of every season he would tell his players that he was grateful to have coached them and that if they ever needed to talk or needed a letter of recommendation, to call him and it would be done. He kept that promise also.

Photo: Sue Begany

He taught for 35 years and then he retired. He told me why he wanted to retire one night while we were standing in the lobby of the gym waiting for kids to get picked up. He told me that he was going to retire so he could drive his grandkids to school every day. Guess what? That’s just what he did.

My favorite story about him is one he didn’t even know I heard. When his granddaughter Emily was in 8th grade, she played in the East vs. West field hockey game. I was assigned to run the clock and announce. Coach came to the press box at halftime and told me he had never been in the press box. After the game I came down to say goodbye. Then I saw another friend and wandered over three feet to speak to him. While I was close enough to hear, a former student made time to see him. Coach Hill’s family always did this. The former student said, “Hey Coach Hill! How is retirement?”

Coach answered with the greatest answer ever. He said, “I have a great wife, great kids and great grandchildren. I’m very lucky.” Such a humble answer from a humble man who had a great perspective on life. Those of us who were lucky enough to be in that family – we saw this side of Coach all the time.

Those who knew him would say the same things. He taught us to be humble. He saw the goodness in all of us kids, especially when we didn’t always see the goodness and potential in ourselves. He never gave up on us.

He also taught us that it’s important to give back.

One of Coach’s greatest lessons was that with the great gift of learning comes the great responsibility to teach. He’s given me and all of us other kids so much. I’m not sure that I can ever repay the debt. However, you can be darn sure that I will do my best every day to try to make a difference in the world, and in someone else’s life. I truly believe that an army of former students and players feel the same way.

Coach may have passed on, so I will never get another pep talk, another round of advice, or one of the great hugs he liked to give. But I have my memories. I can honestly say there’s not a day that goes by without me, at some point, doing something or thinking of something he said or did. I then truly try to apply it. He’s touched so many lives in such a meaningful way that he will outlive us all!

You see, we will pass those lessons to the next generation, and they will pass them down to the next. And so on.

My thoughts are with Mrs. Hillegas, Mike and Matt, and the grandchildren. LIke all of Coach Hill’s extended family, we are mourning the loss of a truly great man. It is hard to imagine how difficult it is for those who were closest to him.

God Bless you, Coach.  

[Editor's Note--  A 1987 graduate of Boyertown Area Senior High, Ross Smith works as a Customer Service Representative for CNA Insurance. He has been involved in Athletics at the High School and in the community for the last 41 years, and has been the Football Statistician for the last 33 years.]

You can read the obituary for Robert Hillegas by clicking here.

A visitation for friends and family to gather will be held on Saturday, January 13, 2024, from 11:00AM-2:00PM at Catagnus Funeral Home (1020 E. Philadelphia Ave., Gilbertsville, PA 19525). Burial will be held privately by the family at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the charity of your choice in Robert's name.

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Thank you for this beautifully written tribute Ross (Squiggs).  Bob truly enjoyed teaching and coaching - always interested in the kids.  Another great person from the Boyertown community that will be missed.  

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