Daughter of deputy who died in crash accepts scholarship to Catawba
By Kathy Chaffin
Sometimes when she misses her father, and she misses him all the time, Elizabeth Claire Hillard calls up a favorite memory in her mind.
“It’s kind of silly,” she says, “but I managed to lock myself in his patrol car. I think I was about 8, and it was about an hour before anyone figured out where I was.”
They lived next door to her uncles and grandparents, Claire says, so her father, the late Rick Allen Hillard, a deputy with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, assumed she’d walked over to play with her cousins.
By the time he found her locked in the back seat, she had been crying for about an hour. “He didn’t fuss at me,” Claire says. “He would have if I hadn’t been so upset. He bought me my own carton of ice cream, and that made it all better.
“I was a big daddy’s girl.”
Claire, now 20, was only 11 when her father was killed on Oct. 17, 1999. He lost control of his patrol car and crashed into a tree while chasing a motorcycle.
“It just flipped my entire world upside down,” she says. “My mother has always been there for me, but my father was my stronghold. He was there one minute and gone the next.”
She had lost her beloved father, and for a while, it seemed as if life would never be good enough.
“I didn’t want to do anything,” she says. “I wanted to just sit around.”
Claire was a student at Sacred Heart Catholic Church School when the accident happened. “They were really kind to me,” she says.
After finishing the eighth grade, she started high school at West Rowan, where she missed most of the first quarter due to sickness and ended up transferring to North Hills Christian School.
“All the teachers and administrators there went above and beyond to see that I passed my freshman year,” she says.
Claire was a sophomore at North Hills when she went to work part time at Harris Teeter. She continued working after graduating in 2006 and starting classes at Catawba College that fall.
Even though someone notified her about the scholarship fund set up by the Young Lawyers Division of the North Carolina Bar Association for children of law enforcement officers who have died or been disabled in the line of duty, she says she refused to apply.
“I felt if I accepted a scholarship for that, I was saying that what happened to my father was OK,” she says, “and that I was trying to get something out of it.”
When her mother, Michele Hillard, sent an e-mail to the association explaining why she wouldn’t apply, Claire says a representative wrote back saying that no one would think she was using what happened to make money.
“She said it was just their way of trying to tell my family that they appreciate what he did,” she says. “That made me feel very different about it, and after a little bit of hesitation, I filled the paperwork out.”
Claire says she was surprised to be chosen for a $2,500 scholarship. “I’m really thankful to have it,” she says. “Catawba is expensive, and it’s been kind of hard.”
An elementary education major, she already volunteers with the public school system and hopes to go on to earn a master’s degree.
“I love to work and stay busy,” she says. “This gives me a sense of pride and achievement. The more time and effort put forth, the greater the reward.”
Upon graduation, Claire wants to teach children from low-income families at an elementary school in North Carolina.
“I just want to know that I was able to give to a child who wasn’t as fortunate the same opportunities,” she says. “I know a lot of children don’t have the caring, warm family like I had.
“For a lot of them, school is the only place where they feel safe and know that someone cares for them.”
Claire says her father, a 21-year veteran of Rowan County law enforcement, would be proud of her whatever she decided to do. “School has never been the easiest for me,” she says. “I think even if I just had a job, he would still be proud.”
She still lives with her mother in Salisbury. Michele Hillard has worked hard to keep the family going, Claire says, and is still employed as a full-time maternity nurse at Davis Regional Medical Center in Statesville and a part-time maternity nurse at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
Claire’s 24-year-old brother, Joseph Allen Hillard, works as a chef and is currently attending culinary school.
“We all went through our troubled points and isolations,” she says, “but now we’re as close as we possibly can be.”
The community that reached out to the Hillard family after the tragedy continues to be supportive. “They were all very kind,” Claire says, “especially the sheriff’s department and the police department.”
“We hear from them every once in a while, and every once in a while, we’ll take them dinner. I think it makes my mom feel closer to my dad.”
Claire remembers her father as the most kind-hearted person she has ever known.
“He would have given anybody the shirt off his back if they needed it,” she says. “He was always laughing. He was like a big kid.”
Rick Hillard was 46 when he was killed. He had worked with the Salisbury Police Department for 15 years and the Rowan Sheriff’s Office for six years.
Claire Hillard is one of three students receiving the Young Lawyers Division scholarships for the first time this year.
Funding is provided through the North Carolina Bar Association’s Foundation Endowment, including a $5,000 annual contribution from the Hubert Humphrey Justice Fund that is divided among two scholarship recipients.For the 2008-09 academic year, scholarships totaling $39,500 were awarded to 16 students from across the state.
Among the 13 students receiving scholarship renewals were Lane D. Means II of Concord, a junior at North Carolina A&T State University who received a $1,000 scholarship, and his sister, Nathalie DonNora Means, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who received a $3,000 scholarship.
North Carolina lawyers, through the NCBA Foundation Endowment program, have distributed $442,127 in scholarship funds since 1989.
Recipients must make initial application prior to their 27th birthday and be enrolled or accepted at an approved institute of higher education or vocational school. Renewal applicants must demonstrate satisfactory academic performance in the preceding semester.
The North Carolina Bar Association, with headquarters at the N.C. Bar Center in Cary, is the largest voluntary professional legal organization in North Carolina.