Georgia’s longest-serving state senator, Jack Hill, was everybody’s friend. During his three decades in office, he attended countless events and gatherings, never forgot a name, and treated everyone with equal importance. Community leaders, colleagues and friends mourned Sen. Hill’s passing Monday with fond thoughts and memories.
Tattnall County Sheriff Kyle Sapp told The Associated Press that Hill was found “in his chair slumped over” at his office in Reidsville on Monday afternoon. Sapp said that Hill's cause of death was not immediately available but that neither the coronavirus nor foul play are suspected.
The news stunned the southeast region of the state, where Hill was well known and respected. The retired grocer once operated Hill’s Grocery in Reidsville, where he was known to work and stock shelves even after becoming a legislator.
Hill was first elected to the Georgia State Senate as a Democrat in 1990 and was re-elected to his 15th two-year term in 2018. Hill announced he would change parties in 2002 and was easily re-elected to his District 4 State Senate seat as a Republican through the 2018 election. He was the longest serving member in the Senate and he had qualified to run for his 16th term in February. No one qualified to oppose him.
Dedicated and caring
Statesboro accounting firm partner Billy Hickman admired Hill’s dedication. “Jack Hill represented the 4th District and all of Georgia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 52 weeks a year,” he said. “Jack always made decisions from his heart and his decisions were what was fair for all people, not a select few. His commitment to the needs of the 4th District and Georgia were always right behind his love for God and his family.”
Adam Kennedy, director of the Claxton-Evans Economic Development Authority, grew up knowing Hill, who succeeded Sen. Joe Kennedy. In a heartfelt Facebook post, he said: “Where do I start with my tribute to Jack Hill? As most of you know he followed my daddy representing the 4th Senatorial District. My dad was so happy that Jack was elected and always said the district was in great hands. Jack always loved to tell me stories about the advice daddy gave him at the Capitol when he went into office.
“Jack was a statesman (who) always cared about the district. More than that, Jack was a personal friend of the Kennedy’s and that’s why this makes his loss so hard right now,” he said.
Hill served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful positions in the Senate. He also served as the vice chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, as a member on the Natural Resources and the Environment and Regulated Industries and Utilities, as well as an ex-officio member of the Finance Committee.
In addition to Bulloch County, Hill’s Senate District 4 included Evans, Candler, Effingham and parts of Tattnall and Emanuel counties.
By Monday night, State Rep. Jan Tankersley, whose House District 160 includes part of her home county of Bulloch as well as part of Bryan County, had posted a casual photo of herself and Hill standing together as friends.
“Tonight we are grieving the loss of a great Georgian, a true statesman, and a friend to all who knew him. May you Rest in Peace, our beloved Senator Jack Hill,” Tankersley wrote.
Man of honor
Hill was one of the most honored, recognized and well-liked leaders in the state.
Joe McGlamery, chairman of the Deen Day Smith Service to Mankind Selection Committee, recalled that Sen. Jack Hill was only the second person to be named “Man of the Decade” when he received this award in 2017. The other had been Coach Erk Russell in 1990.
In announcing Hill’s award that year, McGlamery said, “We honor Sen. Hill for many reasons, but in the main, we honor him for being the man he is: A person of persistent and irresistible logic, fair in his examination of the facts and eloquent in his decision-making. So earnest is his manner, so calm and musical is his voice, so possessed of an iron nerve, so firm in his convictions and so affectionate toward his constituents, that it is totally understandable that he is one of the most effective legislative leaders of our state.”
Local businessman Ellis Wood mourned Hill’s passing as a tremendous loss. “Certainly none of us will ever totally realize the great impact Jack Hill had on our state and our local communities,” he said. “We have lost a great leader and statesman and I have lost a very dear friend.”
As news of Hill’s death at age 75 spread, Georgia Southern President Kyle Marrero shared the following statement: "Tonight, Eagle Nation mourns the loss of Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, a tremendous servant leader who loved Georgia Southern. He left an indelible mark on this institution, Southeast Georgia, and the state. I was among a great many who relied on his friendship and wise counsel. We send condolences and prayers to his wife, Ruth Ann, his family and his loved ones."
Born in Reidsville, where he lived all his life, Hill operated a grocery store in the Tattnall County town for decades. He was a graduate of Reidsville High School and what was then Georgia Southern College, now Georgia Southern University. Hill is survived by his wife Ruth, three children and seven grandchildren.
His memory, however, will remain in the minds and hearts of many whose lives he touched across the state.
“He always donated to the American Heart Association Beach Ride” fundraiser in Myrtle Beach, said Donna Parker. She and her late husband Ricky Parker rode horses in the charity event for years, and although they never met, struck up a friendship with Hill. “He always donated, and we ended up sending each other Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter cards,” she said. “Rick always said he wished he could meet him. I wish I could have met him in person.”
Bulloch County Commissioner Anthony Simmons, who has served for decades in his position, recalled how Hill worked to help others.
“Every time we asked, every time the NAACP asked, he was always there for us. He was always ready to lend a hand. He was always around, and will be sorely missed, not just by Bulloch County."
Several of Hill’s friends and colleagues spoke of how he seemed to “be everywhere” – attending various events and participating in projects.
“I don't think we can say enough about Senator Hill," Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar told City Council on Tuesday morning. "He's someone that I personally looked up to, and he was everywhere. He was everywhere, like, you know, you would see him at the Kiwanis, you would see him at the fair, he would be in the fair parade, he'll be at the local meetings. He was everywhere, and he did a lot.
"He's someone that, if you're an elected official and you're going to model yourself after anybody and their work ethic, Jack Hill is one of those individuals."
Pineland Mental Health Director June DiPolito said she had a long-standing friendship with Hill. “He was a champion for everyone, especially those with disabilities. He employed disabled persons in his grocery store,” she said. “He was always there for us, and had a big heart. He worked hard to make sure our state was funded. Pineland is grieving. He will be greatly missed.”
County Commission Chairman Roy Thompson said he valued his friendship with Hill
“Deborah and I got to be good friends with him. He was a great guy, and like Superman, he was always around.”
Hill was the kind of person who liked everyone and cared for all, he said. “He really loved his family. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a person like Jack - a caring family man. He is going to be missed, I promise you.”
Friend to all
Statesboro District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum called Hill a great friend to the community during a recent council meeting.
"As far as an elected official goes, he was one of those guys that everyone looks up to, everyone respects,” he said. "He was polite, he was friendly, and you may not have agreed with everything he voted on, but he always had conviction and passion. He was just a great friend to this community … a great friend to the city, and he's going to be missed. He died working for the state of Georgia."
However difficult, many took the time to say their goodbyes and pay respects.
“Jack Hill, we have missed you from the second that you closed your eyes. I am proud to have known and worked with (you),” Hickman said in a statement to the Statesboro Herald,
“I always looked forward to our talks about politics,:” Kennedy said. “One thing I know about my Senator is that he was a great man! You will be missed my friend and it will be a long time before the precious 4th will have the leadership it has had the past 54 years. Rest In peace dear friend. Your legacy will live long.”
McCollar spoke of Hill’s dedication.
"Some people say they represent all of the people, but he really did. We have lost a giant in our community, and we definitely want to send our condolences to his family and to his close friends, to his colleagues in Atlanta and all of those people that have a hole in their hearts because of him."
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at 912-489-9414.