Mayor Jonathan McCollar, during Tuesday morning’s Statesboro City Council meeting, proposed renaming Lester Road, the street Statesboro High School is on, Coach Lee Hill Boulevard.
McCollar then ended up casting a tie-breaker vote on a resolution to do just that, after the council split 2-2, with one council member absent. The two members who voted “nay,” District 5’s Shari Barr and District 4’s John Riggs, indicated they were in favor of honoring Hill but thought a public input process should precede renaming a street.
Hill, who taught and coached at Statesboro High for 44 years, including as head basketball coach since 1978, died Saturday at age 68. He had been hospitalized since being diagnosed with COVID-19 on June 11.
“As you know, today our flags fly at half-staff because we’ve lost a giant within our community in Coach Lee Hill,” McCollar said. “Lee Hill was near and dear to so many people within our community.”
The mayor called Hill “a mentor, a father figure, a shaper of generation after generation, class after class.” He also referred to him as “the winningest coach in the history of Georgia,” and Hill was at least the winningest at the time of his passing, with 877 victories, a state championship title, one state runner-up and six trips to the Final Four.
After rearranging some procedural items so that he spoke last on the agenda, McCollar had noted that he had a resolution drafted and was presenting it “for discussion and then possibly a vote.” He said he had tried to reach out to all council members that morning before the 9 a.m. meeting.
The mayor went on to say that the coronavirus “is robbing us of good people within our community.” He again urged everyone to wear masks and said, “Don’t get caught up in the politics of it.”
“I say all of that to say this,” McCollar said. “I want to pay tribute to Coach Lee Hill and I’m hoping that the council can support us in this, and how I want to pay tribute to Coach Lee Hill is renaming Lester Road to Coach Lee Hill Boulevard.”
Asked for a process
Barr said she did not know Hill, but was reading on Facebook and hearing from many people what a wonderful person he was.
“And I think he’s probably well deserving of the honor that the mayor’s proposing,” Barr said. “I have no objection to it specifically, but my concern is that I don’t like us to do things quickly without folks having opportunity for some input.”
She said she had not known the origin of the name “Lester Road” and had called a friend who knows more local history. That source told Barr, she said, that the road was named for Dan Lester, a farmer who lived on land in that area and was a prominent Bulloch County citizen.
The grave of Dan B. Lester, 1888-1953, is at Eastside Cemetery. His obituary in the Bulloch Herald also referred to him as a prominent citizen and said he had been involved with the Southern Cotton Oil Company.
“I don’t object to honoring the coach, but I’m a little concerned about something happening this quickly without folks who may have very strong feelings about it having the opportunity to participate in the conversation,” Barr said.
District 2 council member Paulette Chavers eventually made the motion to rename the street, and District 3 member Venus Mack, who attended by a teleconferencing connection, seconded it. District 1 member Phil Boyum was absent.
“I know Coach Hill and he was a very honorable man … and when you were on his team you were going to put in the hard work, and I just think that just exemplifies the city of Statesboro, that when you’re on this team you’ve got to put in the hard work to make the systems work properly, so I’m all for renaming Lester Road to Coach Lee Hill Boulevard,” Chavers said.
Mack said she did not know Hill but saw that “he had a very big impact.”
Barr asked if it were possible to do something like the city does for zoning variance requests, put up signs on Lester Road notifying people of the intended change and give them time, such as two weeks, to state any concerns.
When she asked what the process was, McCollar said the council could simply vote on the change. If the name change were coming “from the grass-roots level,” citizens proposing it would need to get signatures of residents along the street, he said. But the housing on Lester Road consists of apartment complexes with mostly short-term residents, he added.
Street name swap?
City Attorney Cain Smith read the resolution, which in its title summary refers to renaming Lester Road “particularly that stretch adjacent to Statesboro High School between Northside Drive and East Main Street.” But in effect, the resolution renames the entire street as Coach Lee Hill Boulevard, Smith confirmed later.
The draft he recited to the council proposed in turn renaming the existing Lee Hill Drive off Denmark Street as Lester Drive. This short street serves as a driveway to the Boys & Girls Club of Bulloch County.
McCollar had also suggested this step. But before the vote, he asked Smith to remove, for later consideration, the sentence renaming the street at the Boys & Girls Club.
Noting that one council member was absent, Riggs said he agreed with Barr in wanting to wait to allow input on the decision. He had also suggested notifying Hill’s family and students first.
“I know it’s all going to be positive,” Riggs said. “I can’t think that anybody would want to say anything negative. But I’ll have to vote ‘no’ since this is yes or no, but I don’t want to have to do that.”
“Absolutely,” McCollar replied, “I just feel that sometimes leadership has to lead from the front, and Coach Hill, he’s deserving of it, so let’s put it to a vote.”
The resolution indicates that street numbers on Coach Lee Hill Boulevard will remain the same as they were on Lester Road. No time frame has been announced for replacement of street signs.
The casket bearing Hill’s body is slated for viewing Friday, 5-8 p.m. at Lee Hill Court in the Statesboro High School gym, with all social distancing practices to be enforced. The basketball court was dedicated in Hill’s name in 2016.
A graveside funeral service and burial will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Bulloch Memorial Gardens, 22204 U.S. Highway 80 East. Pastor Gilbert Hall will be officiating, and Hill’s Mortuary Inc. is handling the arrangements.