Evergreen professor's cancer battle fuels book about life and death


by MEG COYLE / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @MegCoyleKING


Posted on October 20, 2011 at 5:59 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 21 at 9:24 PM

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Within a matter of weeks, Dave Hitchens will die. But this isn't a story about death, it is a story about living to the last day.

"I'm still having a good time!" said Dave. "I'm something of a storyteller. And that's turned out to be a good thing."

Dave's story starts at Evergreen State College in 1970. He was the very first professor on campus. He helped create the curriculum, even co-starred in a college promotional video. He went on to teach American history for the next 41 years. And to rave reviews.

"It wasn't like it was a chore," said former student Ariel Taylor. "I was excited to read these books and I was excited to come to class."

Dave loved every second of it, even as he battled lung cancer. Even when he learned it was terminal and had six months to live. But when doctors delivered that sobering news, it was last October.

"I'm still feeling good, I'm not dead yet, and I want to have as much fun as I can possibly have in the amount of time that I have left," said Dave.

It wasn't the cancer itself that kicked Dave out of the classroom, it was a severe reaction to a chemo drug that cut his career short. But the teaching continued. The lesson isn't so much about history anymore, but about the here and now. He's answering the question you won't find in any textbook: Is there a right way to handle coming to the end of your life?

So in true academic fashion, Dave teaches by example. He is creating a living manual on how to die. In his book, dying is about celebrating the milestones, the friendships, the fun. It is the art of living fueled by the power of conversation.

"If no one can reach down and pull out a dusty old manual and say, 'Okay, here it is,' then I'm the only one. I can write it for myself and that's what I've been busy doing," said Dave.

It starts with working his family connections. He's never felt closer to his kids, all six of them. He enjoys the quiet moments with his wife Joan of 28 years. And always, music, especially bluegrass.

"I wouldn't be where I am now without him," said his wife Joan.

Dave is the first to acknowledge it's not always easy. He wears the badge with pride, cancer sucks. Yet his quality of life has never been better. Celebrating life, love and an incredible legacy.

"I'm sure there's still a hard road yet to go and I'm not even sure what that's gonna be like. But for here and now this is where we have to be and this will make it easier," said Joan of the palliative care her husband is receiving from Providence SoundHomeCare and Hospice.

Dave doesn't want you to feel sorry for him. But his life mission fulfilled. The rest, for Professor David Hitchens is history.

You can visit his website, http://www.davidlhitchens.org/, by clicking here.

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CORRECTION: This version of the story has been updated to correct a misattributed quote.