Lyle C. Hillegas, who served as the fifth president of Westmont from 1972 to 1975, died July 29, 2008, in Santa Barbara. At 37, he was the youngest person ever appointed to the presidency at the college and the only one to come directly from the ranks of the faculty. During his tenure, he recruited a strong team of administrators, began the process of increasing enrollment from 800 to 1,200 and worked on preserving the gardens and beautifying the campus.
President Gayle D. Beebe expressed the grief of the Westmont community at Hillegas’ passing. “In the brief time I was privileged to know Lyle, I was struck by his sensitive spirit and warm smile,” Beebe said. “He radiated a confidence in the goodness of God that I found inspiring then and comforting now. He did not ask for heroic measures to be done or heroic attention to be given, but lived and prayed as a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. His last act for the campus was to serve as co- chair of the Chapel Design Committee. He did this with the same grace and diplomacy that marked all his earlier work. I am inspired by his memory and will miss him as a friend.”
President Emeritus David K. Winter remembers Hillegas with affection. “When I think of Lyle, I am reminded of his years as dean of students and professor of biblical studies, before he became our president,” Winter said. “He made a very significant contribution to the lives of countless students, beyond what most of us as president have been able to do. Also, he had a marvelous artistic sense, and he was passionate about building a magnificent campus. Even today you can see the lasting effect of his commitment to the spiritual development of students and the beauty of this campus. On a personal level, I felt a deep bond with him, which developed into a great friendship. I will miss him very much.”
Born in Gresham, Wis., Hillegas graduated from William Jennings Bryan College in Tennessee and earned a doctor of theology degree in church history from Dallas Theological Seminary. His dissertation on the history of Westmont brought him to campus in 1962 to do research, and he stayed on, serving first as head resident, dean of men and chaplain before becoming associate professor of religious studies.
Alumni may remember him best as the master of ceremonies for Spring Sing, an annual competition among the residence halls featuring clever musical skits. He started a tradition of grand and unexpected entrances, which included arriving in a hot-air balloon, a biplane, a camel and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. The year he was doing postgraduate work in contem- porary theology at Cambridge University in England, he flew home and surprised students by showing up in a Rolls Royce wearing a bowler hat.
A popular teacher, Hillegas built strong relationships with students, who welcomed his appointment to the presidency. He eased tension between the student body and the board and changed the college’s behavioral expectations to apply only on campus.
Hillegas became an ordained Presbyterian minister after leaving Westmont and served as the senior pastor of El Montecito Presbyterian Church for 18 years. The congregation grew significantly under his ministry, and he presided over the construction of a large new building with a parish hall, facilities for youth and additional classrooms. He also encouraged support for foreign missions.
In recent years, Hillegas filled interim pastoral positions in Orcutt and Santa Ynez and became the driving force behind Front Porch, a Presbytery outreach to college students at UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He directed the program at UCSB for several years before retiring. He also served on the board of directors for the Veritas Forum at the university, which promotes dialogue between the academic community and Christians.
An unabashed Anglophile, Lyle led several trips to England and traveled there as often as he could. Not only did he spend time studying at Cambridge, but he exchanged pulpits with an English minister for six months during his years at El Montecito. He took a sabbatical there in 1990 with his family.
Hillegas and his wife, Melissa, who graduated from Westmont in 1975, have two grown sons, Hunter-Scott and Thatcher, and daughter-in-law, Megan, Hunter-Scott’s wife. His sister, Iva Hillegas Schatz, worked at the college for many years in the gift planning office. The family requests that donations in Lyle’s memory be made to Westmont or to the Presbytery of Santa Barbara, specifying Front Porch Ministries.