Goodbye, Mr. Cliffs Notes

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Cliff Hillegass, the founder and former president of Cliffs Notes study guides

I remember the first time I saw them, dog-eared and worn. They were tucked into my motherís school bag, buried beneath sheaves of blue books and manila folders. I was looking for a special blue pen my mom used to correct tests. Instead, I found Cliffs Notes.

It was the fall of 1983, and my mom was already deeply immersed in her classes, teaching Shakespeare to 10th and 12th graders. Her leather bag was stuffed with copies of "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet" and "King Lear." I remember wondering, as I reached for the bright yellow booklet, what my mom, an inveterate and notoriously demanding teacher, would want with what were commonly known as "cheater books."

I was so young then. So innocent. I had no idea how far my mom would go in the name of intellectual advancement.




A brief summary of "The Life and Times of Cliff Hillegass"

Chapter One: The Beginning
1919: Clifton Keith Hillegass is born in Rising City, Nebraska, not far from Lincoln. His father was a rural mail carrier and his mother raised gladioli.

Chapter Two: College Days
After graduating from Midland Lutheran College, Cliff pursues graduate work in physics and geology at the University of Nebraska. He drops out in 1939 to marry his first wife and begins work at the tiny Nebraska Book Company. Leaves his job briefly for a stint as a meteorologist in the Army Air Corps.

Chapter Three: First Notes
1958: Following a friend's urging, and ignoring naysayers, Hillegass uses a $4,000 loan to publish his initial batch of Notes. In one year, he sells 58,000 copies.

Chapter Four: Selling Out
1999: Cliff sells his Notes to IDG Books for $14 million.

Chapter Five: The End
May 5, 2001: Hillegass dies of complications from a stroke. He is survived by his second wife, four children, a stepson and seven grandchildren.

Character Sketch:
Hillegass loved books; he felt strongly that his booklets should be used to enhance students' reading experiences, not take the place of reading the books themselves. Throughout his ownership of the company, Hillegass inserted a signed note into each Cliffs Notes booklet: "A thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts."



I had no idea that every time my mom wrote a test or even a quiz on a book she was teaching, she would first sit down with the corresponding Cliffs Notes (and any spinoff cheater books that were on the scene) and painstakingly write the test around the information in the booklets.

In other words, she made it virtually impossible to cheat. Two generations of children passed through my momís English classes, heartlessly forced into reading the books and plays they were assigned. It was a brutal battle of attrition: My mom versus Cliffs Notes. Nine times out of ten, my mom won.

There were, of course, instances where a question would slip through the cracks. Maybe a new edition of the Cliffs Notes for "Hamlet" had passed under my momís radar. Maybe two pages of her "Henry V" notes got stuck together. Whatever the reason, there were occasional lapses; a quiz might allude to one of Shylockís character traits — and one or two vigilant (and stubbornly optimistic) students might recognize the description from a passage in their Cliffs Notes. The odds of a slip-up werenít good at all — but that may have made victory twice as sweet.

Saturday, my mom lost one of her most formidable adversaries when Cliff Hillegass, inventor of the little yellow books, died at the age of 83. Hillegass abdicated responsibility for his eponymous Notes when he sold the company for $14 million back in 1999, but the cheerful yellow and black design, which has served as a beacon for lazy or overworked high schoolers since 1958, remains the same.

"I donít have anything against Cliffs Notes as a study aid," my mom still says today. "I just donít want kids to read them instead of the book." Cliff himself probably would have cheered my momís diligence. He meant the books to be study guides, not substitutes. This guy probably understood better than anyone the unique and transforming power of great literature. Cliff sat in his study contemplating the books his company would eventually summarize, beginning with "Hamlet," his first project. (Not exactly an endeavor for the weak of heart: Can you, off the top of your head, discuss the emotional bond between Laertes and Ophelia? Cliff probably could).

Hillegass would have done well in my momís class. He might have even earned one of her famously rare Aís. Chances are, they would have admired each other — and he probably wouldnít have minded at all that she rendered his famous booklets utterly and laughably useless.