Known as a lover of the world around her and the God above her, former Hillsdale College student Rhianna Dilworth died on Sept. 17 suddenly in her sleep from a heart condition at the age of 22 at the University of Montana.
Dilworth attended Hillsdale from 2012-2014 and studied biology. With aspirations of becoming a wildlife biologist, she transferred to the University of Montana after her sophomore year to join its renowned science department.
Close friends and family said there are two things they remember most about Dilworth’s life: her passion for being outdoors and her generous and loving spirit for everyone.
“She died of an underdeveloped heart,” said Donigale Dilworth, her mother. “Which is so ironic for anyone who knew her. She was the kindest member of our family by far.”
While at Hillsdale, Rhianna Dilworth made science a part of her daily life. In addition to her extensive biology course load, she volunteered to work numerous hours in the DNA lab as a freshman. To not feel detached from nature, she would often forego the library and climb a tree in Slayton Arboretum and study in its branches.
“Whether she was diving head first into the biostation trap net to remove the live snapping turtles or scampering 50 feet up a white pine while carrying a flute and an ecology textbook, Rhianna was a force of nature and seemingly afraid of nothing,” Associate Professor of Biology David Houghton said. “She was one of the most inquisitive and thoughtful scholars that I’ve ever taught.”
But what many of Rhianna’s family and friends said they remember most is her overwhelming generosity.
During her last week of freshman year, senior Katherine Frank, a friend of Dilworth, said she woke up one morning with pain in her right hand. She had slept on her wrist awkwardly and struggled to write out the dozens of pages of Greek homework she needed to accomplish before finals.
As Frank was writing out her Greek translations using her left hand, Dilworth stumbled upon her in the library. She dropped everything on her schedule to help.
“I don’t know what she had to do for finals week, and I knew she was always busy with biology,” Frank said, wiping away a tear from her eye. “But she sat down with me and spent so many hours with me. She deciphered my handwriting, and she literally learned the Greek alphabet to help me write out and transcribe my homework.”
That act of kindness didn’t come as a surprise to Dilworth’s parents, they said.
Her father, Timothy Dilworth, said his daughter’s connection with animals and Christianity started from a young age. Rhianna Dilworth grew up in Howell, Michigan, on an 18-acre farm.
“She would constantly be bringing frogs and snakes back to the house,” Timothy Dilworth said. “If we couldn’t find her, we knew she was probably outside.”
Donigale Dilworth recalled one moment when her daughter was 7 years old, and she wanted to cut the grass with the riding lawnmower. When she looked back outside, she saw that the lawn was mowed into a design of zig zags and skewed lines.
“She told me that she didn’t want to run over any of the new wildflowers that were getting ready to bloom,” Donigale Dilworth said. “That made me laugh. She was such a character.”
Several years later, Rhianna Dilworth surprised her mother again, she said. Donigale Dilworth stumbled upon her 10 year old reading Revelation cover to cover in the family Bible.
“She was deeply spiritual at a very young age,” she said. “That’s not common to see, especially with a book such as Revelation. It didn’t scare her. It was one of her favorites. She had a walk with God, ever since she was a little girl.”
Her parents said that Christian love carried her throughout her childhood, through Hillsdale, and her transition to the University of Montana. Rhianna Dilworth’s parents moved with her to Montana in 2014 and settled two hours away from the school. It had always been their dream to move to the treasure state, they said.
Rhianna Dilworth took a year and a half off school to establish residency in Montana to qualify for in-state tuition. She started her first year at the University of Montana in January 2016. She would come home often, and she always stayed in touch with her parents.
Rhianna Dilworth came home the weekend before she suddenly died. Her parents had no idea they wouldn’t see her again.
“I had just come home from work and told her I was going to take a nap,” Timothy Dilworth said. “I told her to make sure she woke me up before she left, so I could say goodbye. A few hours later, she woke me up. And she said goodbye. Then, she was gone. That was the last time I saw her.”
In honor of Rhianna Dilworth’s life, her parents are making plans with members of the biology department to install a memorial bench in Hillsdale’s arboretum, her favorite place to study and be with friends on campus. They are also planning to hold a memorial service at Hillsdale in the near future.
“I think she found peace in nature,” Timothy Dilworth said. “But I knew she found God everywhere.”
Rhianna Dilworth’s funeral is on Oct. 8 at 11 a.m. at Easthaven Baptist Church in Kalispell, Montana. Condolences and flowers can be sent to the Dilworths at 488 Batavia Lane, Kalispell, Montana, 59901.