Hilmers started as a three-sport student-athlete before graduating sum a cum laude, moved on to become a Marines officer, an astronaut, and ultimately an associate professor of internal medicine. But Hilmers, a DeWitt, Iowa, native, credits his father, Paul, with instilling a work ethic and a “restlessness” in him that exists to this day.
“After achieving my lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, I wound up being an academic physician and researcher, and working in the mission field as well,” Hilmers wrote in “Man on a Mission: The David Hilmers Story,” his 2013 autobiography. “I’ve been on many trips over the years, and after a few months at home, I’ll begin to plan when and where the next one will take place.”
Paul Hilmers took over his father’s greenhouse at an early age, and also worked as a deliveryman and repairman, often with David by his side. David’s childhood was full of hard work, but was also idyllic. He spent time exploring the woods with friends, collecting baseball cards and attending Sunday school.
Hilmers was a good student, but he wanted to avoid being labeled a “nerd” or “bookworm,” so he also threw himself into football, basketball and track at Central Community High School. Even with that workload, he still graduated as his class valedictorian in 1968.
With dreams of one day becoming a doctor, Hilmers attended Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, on a work scholarship, and completed his undergraduate degree in economics and mathematics in 1972.
While at Cornell College, Hilmers played football and ran track after starting out as a wrestler. He admits to getting “beat up a lot” during his first year in wrestling, but by the time he was a senior, his team won its conference championship.
“I loved the fact that I could participate in three varsity sports without undue pressure,” Hilmers said. “Academics always came before sports, and our coaches understood that. I needed to become a good manager of my time in order to participate fully in both athletics and academics. This is a skill that has come in handy over and over again since I left Cornell College, and perhaps is one of the most valuable lessons I learned.”Near the end of his junior year, Hilmers spotted a Marines recruitment brochure in his dorm, called the number and found himself on a bus to Des Moines, Iowa, for a physical within days. He completed basic training in Quantico, Virginia, that summer, returning to Cornell College his senior year with a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps waiting for him upon his graduation in 1972. Opting to attend flight school after his first specialty choice of data processing was unavailable, Hilmers found himself again rising to the top of his class. Assignments in the Mediterranean and Japan followed.
Hilmers turned his focus toward applying to medical schools in 1976, but he was turned down by a number of universities, including Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where he is now a faculty member. Instead, Hilmers detoured to naval postgraduate school in Monterey, California, earning a Master of Science degree and the equivalent of a doctorate in electrical engineering in 1979.
“For the first time in my life, I considered myself a serious student,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I had done well in the classroom most of my life, but I’d also found time to be distracted by any number of things. At Monterey, I hunkered down and focused on studying harder than I ever had in my life.”
Hilmers was living with his wife and young family in Japan while serving a tour of duty when he was selected for a NASA training program in 1980. He made four journeys into space, including a trip aboard the Discovery shuttle in 1990, NASA’s first mission following the Challenger disaster in 1986. Hilmers once again set his sights on medical school while preparing for his fourth and final NASA mission. He was accepted at Baylor this time, graduating with top honors in 1995 and completing his residency in internal medicine and pediatrics in 1999.
Hilmers has devoted his attention since then to a different kind of mission — mainly global health volunteer efforts, including pediatric HIV/AIDS projects in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
Even after so much unquestionable success in several different career fields, Hilmers remains down to earth.
“For me, success means being at peace with yourself and with others,” he said. “It also means that whatever you choose to do, you do it with all your heart, but not at the expense of others.”
Hilmers offers these words of advice to current student-athletes:
“Keep a proper balance in all aspects of your life, not only in academics and athletics, but also in spirituality and in your relationships with others,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to dream to do great things, and remember that it’s never too late to start a new career.”