...easy working with a “visionary.” R. Shankar Nair, Teng senior vice president, says, “John’s ideas can be a little trying. Sometimes he pushes the out-of-the-box idea longer than we’d like when we want to get on with the project.”

Stubborn, yes, but dozens of colleagues also attest that a control freak or out-of-touch, wild-eyed inventor he is not. “John’s not too visionary—he’s also down- to-earth,” says Nair. “He’s not too radical. He’s right on the edge between the conventional and the future.”

Though his mind is not for rent, Don’t put him down as arrogant. His reserve, a quiet defense, Riding out the day’s events.

Hillman is confident but manifests no big ego. He did, however, once want to be a rock musician. “How many people know that this world-class engineer also finds the time to be the bass guitar player in a rock ’n’ roll band?” says T.A. Goodman, senior vice president with Parsons Transportation Group. One Thanksgiving, Goodman says the Hillmans hosted his own large family and a Ukrainian couple. “After John’s lovely wife, Corrie, feeds the huge crowd, the penance was having to listen to John play the bass guitar.”

These days Hillman plays drums in a group called PopRocks. “I love both bass guitar and drums,” says Hillman, who also has a taste for classical musicians like Gustav Mahler. He also enjoys yoga and reads the German New Age philosopher Eckhart Tolle and biographies of Rush.

The world is, the world is, Love and life are deep, Maybe as his skies are wide.

Through Hillman’s Canadian licensee, international and intermodal interest is brewing in the HCB. One Czech colleague was not convinced at first. “We were conversing with John,” says IISC’s Anderson, “and [our client] basically said, ‘John, you have nothing. You’re in diapers and you’re a loser.’ ” Hillman remained unruffled by the jab. Now “Mr. Loser” is an inside joke between Hillman and the colleague, who is now an HCB believer.

The HCB now is being considered for rail and highway projects in Canada, says Anderson. Project partners on a planned $300-million new port in northern British Columbia are committed to using HCBs once overall funding has been procured.

The 1,000-ft berth in a seismic zone would handle 2,000-tonne shiploads of corrosive potash. It would comprise 14-m-long HCB spans, and the 20% increase in up-front cost would be offset by the savings on steel piles, says Maurice “Zickie” Allgrove, one of the team leaders with Ausenco Sandwell, Vancouver, B.C., which did detailed design for the port.

Once the first two sections were built, further construction then could proceed from on top of the berth with limited use of supporting barges, since the HBCs are so light, he adds. Overall, there would actually be a cost savings of 8%. “After looking at [the HCB], we fell victim to its allure, benefits and value,” says Allgrove.

Anderson explains Hillman’s distinction between a traveler and a tourist. “A tourist is at a destination for a couple of weeks and then goes home. A traveler continues on the journey,” quotes Anderson. He adds, “We’re all travelers on the HCB train—and John is the leader of the journey.”

For Hillman, the modern-day Tom Sawyer, the journey is, in many ways, just beginning.