Skip to main content

Hilton, James Harold

Published onAug 04, 2021
Hilton, James Harold

(November 20, 1899 – January 14, 1982)

Quick Facts

The tenth president of Iowa State University, from 1953 to 1965. Hilton long held the title as the only graduate to occupy the university’s highest office, in 2019 that title was updated to be the first alum to hold the office.[1]

Portrait painted in 1965 by artist Richard L. Seyffert

Hilton grew up on a farm in Hickory, North Carolina, and graduated from Startown High School. He enrolled at North Carolina State University in 1918 and took care of the dairy herd while also working for the Extension Service. The next year, he decided to transfer to Iowa State College in search of better livestock production facilities and resources.

During his time at Iowa State, Hilton continued to support his studies by working with dairy cattle and in the meat laboratory. He left school briefly in 1921 to serve as the assistant county extension agent in Jefferson County, and also served as the assistant 4-H Club leader at Iowa State (1922). He received his BS (1923) in animal husbandry from Iowa State and was hired as an instructor there. For the next three years, he served as the county extension agent for Greene County, Iowa, before leaving for Purdue University.

Hilton spent 19 years at Purdue University, serving as a member of the Dairy Extension staff (1926-1927), assistant professor (1927-1936), associate professor (1936-1939), and professor (1939-1945). In 1940, he was named assistant chief of the Dairy Husbandry Department. During his tenure at Purdue, Hilton earned his MS from the University of Wisconsin (1937) and his PhD from Purdue (1945).

Later in his career, he received honorary doctorates from Cornell College, North Carolina State University, and Iowa State, as well as a Doctor of Laws degree from Lenoir Rhyne College (Hickory, North Carolina).

In 1945, Hilton returned to North Carolina State University as head of the Animal Husbandry Department, and in 1948 was appointed dean of agriculture.

Hilton was appointed to the presidency of his alma mater, Iowa State College, in 1953, the first alumnus to undertake the position and the first president of Iowa State to hold a doctorate.[2]

Hilton’s leadership during his 12-year presidency was described as “progressive.” He was viewed as warm and friendly with infectious optimism. Iowa State witnessed tremendous growth in physical facilities, enrollment, course offerings, and public service, in many ways the result of Hilton's vision. Enrollment soared from 7,800 to more than 12,400 and both the Office of Student Affairs and the Student Counseling Service were established. The "book value" of the physical plant increased from $38 million to $471 million. The volume of research rose to $20 million annually and major research and service institutes were established: National Animal Disease Laboratory, Center for Agricultural and Economic Development, Nuclear Engineering department, Technical Institute, and Center for Industrial Research and Service. Hilton placed greater emphasis on the humanities to augment the school’s scientific, technological, and professional courses, leading to new majors in English, speech, and modern foreign languages as well as new humanities and social sciences requirements for engineering and agriculture students. A University-wide Honors program was also created.

Hilton was a staunch supporter of the faculty interest. Under his leadership, the first Faculty Council was elected, the first Faculty Newsletter was published, the title “Distinguished Professor” was established to recognize exceptional faculty members, and retired faculty were granted the designation “Emeritus Professor.”

Although he was associated mainly with the development of the Iowa State University Center, comprising Hilton Coliseum (named in his honor), Stephens Auditorium (voted “Building of the Century” by the Iowa chapter of the American Institute of Architects), and Fisher Theater, Hilton once remarked that he received greater satisfaction from his efforts in “getting from the legislature the necessary funds needed to improve salaries, insurance programs, and retirement programs.”

Hilton also recognized the importance of private philanthropy to support university needs not met by state appropriations or tuition dollars. He organized the Iowa State University Foundation to raise private funds for special projects, including the Iowa State Center, and upon his retirement from the presidency, Hilton was named Iowa State's first director of development.

Often referred to as “cow college” during the time when Hilton was an undergraduate, Iowa State rose to national and international prominence during his presidency. Iowa State was admitted by invitation only to the Association of American Universities (AAU), a select group of the nation’s top public and private institutions. It also was ranked among the 20 leading educational research centers in the nation. In 1959, a year after its centennial, the institution received official recognition of its status as Iowa State University of Science and Technology.

Hilton was also actively involved in the Ames community by serving on the board of Mary Greeley Hospital and the Ames Foundation; he was also a member of the Rotary. Nationally, he served at various times on the boards for the Quaker Oats Company, the Federal Reserve of Chicago, the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company, and the Farm Foundation of Chicago. He was a member of several academic organizations and societies, including Sigma Xi, Phi Kappa Phi, Alpha Zeta, Gamma Sigma Delta, Epsilon Sigma Phi, the American Dairy Science Association, and the American Society of Animal Production.

Hilton later returned to North Carolina, where he served as the executive secretary and treasurer (1967-1971) for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Hilton married Lois Baker in 1923, and they had three children, Eleanor, Helen, and James G. After the death of Lois Hilton in 1969, he married Helen LeBaron, retired dean of the College of Home Economics, in 1970.

Selected Sources

James H. Hilton Papers, RS 2/10, University Archives, Iowa State University Library, Ames.

Zanish-Belcher, Tanya. "Hilton, James Harold" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 7 June 2016

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?