Catherine MacDonald, co-founder of CliffsNotes, the popular study guides bound in black and yellow, died Sunday, her 94th birthday. 

MacDonald and her first husband, Cliff Hillegass, launched what was first called Cliff's Notes in 1958, according to their daughter Linda Hillegass of Lincoln.

"She typed an initial mailing to college stores of about 1,000 letters, hammering most of them out in a campground in Colorado, because her three children wanted to go camping," Linda Hillegass wrote in an email. 

Cliff got almost all the credit for creating what became an American educational institution, the shortcut to studying adequately for tests on books unread or incompletely read. Linda Hillegass said in an interview she doesn't resent the attention her father got, but her mother deserved some of it.    

"She was there just as much as he was," Linda said. "He was what we'd call the CEO, but she was the chief operating officer. He couldn't have done it without her. He had to keep his regular job to feed the family. But it could have just as well have been Cathy's Notes."

While Cliff continued to work at Nebraska Book Co., Catherine operated the fledgling publishing company out of the basement of the family home at 511 Eastridge Drive, Linda wrote. "In the first few years she shipped over a million Cliff’s Notes with a tiny staff including the couple’s children."

Born Catherine Galbraith on a farm outside Fairbury in 1920, MacDonald was named Miss Fairbury at age 16. She paid her way through secretarial school at the Lincoln School of Commerce. After marrying Clifton K. Hillegass in 1939, she did clerical work in claims adjusting at a Lincoln insurance company.

Cliff enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II. They moved to Chicago where he studied meteorology and she did clerical work for the Manhattan Project, unaware of the purpose of the top secret project that produced the first atomic bomb.

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Later in the war, they moved to Monroe, La., where he taught meteorology to navigators and where their son James was born. When the war ended they returned to Lincoln where they had two daughters, Linda and Diane.

In addition to the study aids, Cliff's Notes published the Nebraska Centennial First Ladies’ Cookbook in celebration of the state’s 1967 centennial. Catherine edited the cookbook, Linda said.

Catherine and Cliff Hillegass divorced in 1967. She married Dr. Frank M. MacDonald in 1968, and they lived in Bloomington, Minn., until about 1988, when they retired to a home they built outside of Bayfield, Wis.

Catherine was still part owner of Cliff's Notes for a time after the divorce, according to Linda. "But she had a different life after that," Linda said. When Dr. MacDonald died in 1999, Catherine returned to Lincoln.

She was a lifelong nature lover, bird watcher and gardener who ultimately cultivated 350 varieties of iris in 65 raised beds, Linda said. She also loved handwork, from sewing, dyeing, spinning wool and weaving to carpentry and quilting.

MacDonald was active in the Lincoln Symphony Guild and sang in church choirs throughout her life, well into her 80s. She volunteered at Bryan Memorial Hospital and was active in its Pink Ladies organization.

Cliff Hillegass sold Cliffs Notes — which had by then lost its apostrophe — to IDG Books Worldwide Inc. in 1998 for $14 million. He died in 2001. In 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt acquired CliffsNotes, Inc.

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Reach Richard Piersol at 402-473-7241 or at dpiersol@journalstar.com Twitter @RichardPiersol


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