Jack L. Hill: San Bernardino’s Gentle Giant
By Dianne Anderson
As humble as he was strong, Jack Hill, the long-loved community icon is being remembered this week for his extraordinary life, for his years of dedication that he brought to the church, family and the city of San Bernardino.
Along the way, from a star athlete up through the ranks of the military, and then as a local businessman, he held many first place positions during his full and productive life. Hill died Thanksgiving morning. He was 92.
As a long time member of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church from 1950, his first love was for Christ, and his lifelong love was with his wife of 63 years, Jenny, his family and children, and the community.
In a series of interviews, Hill is featured for his contributions in “The Bridges That Carried Us Over,” an online collection of oral histories and project of the late Ratibu Jacocks and his wife Wilmer Amina Carter.
Those closest to him described his goodwill for San Bernardino, always eager to help others. His first service was to his country despite the deeply entrenched military segregation of that time. He rose to the top, selected Command Sargent Major, and off to fight Germany during WWII. He later signed up for another tour of duty in the National Guard in Korea.
Locally, Hill became the first African American president of the San Bernardino Area Chamber of Commerce and formed the city’s first African American Boy Scout Troop.
In the online tribute, his childhood friend, Phil Kassel, marveled at how Hill made it far up the ranks to Division Master Sargent, overseeing 27,000 men, which is an unparalleled status for anyone in the local area.
“One thing that impressed me about Jack the most of all the guys I know, Jack is probably the most highly promoted and decorated non-commissioned officer that San Bernardino ever, ever produced, Black or white,” said Kassel.
Hill is also revered as a founding member of the American Legion Post 710 over four decades ago to help provide a place of gathering and support for local soldiers.
Later on in his retirement, his business got off to a running start with what began as a catering favor for his friend Kassel. Word spread quickly about the new tastes in town. That business, in partnership with Kassel’s wife, became a local mainstay. Hill took his business acumen further in joining the San Bernardino Area Chamber of Commerce. Again, he climbed the ranks from a member to the first African American president there.
San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz said that Hill’s library involvement was steeped in dedication to serving those who need it most, lower-income families as the children in the community have very strong needs.
“He’s sensitive to those needs, he’s very caring about individuals, he has very strong compassion, I think that’s what he brought to those organizations, he brought them not just as a member, but he brought them with a true sense of compassion and desire to help people,” Saenz said.
In his online tribute, Hill talked about the early good nudging from a Sunday school teacher, one that changed the course of his life for the better.
A self-described “poor reader,” as his mother could also not read or write, Hill recalled how he would regularly head to the back of Sunday School class and turn to his peers for help in case he was called to read a bible verse. One time, he fumbled so badly that the teacher told him if he couldn’t do better, he should stay home. He credits that experience as a motivating force that honed his public speaking skills as an adult.
He took public speaking in high school, and from then on, said that nothing stood in his way when speaking in class, or at work.
“I think that played an important part of my life because it took away the fear. If I couldn’t do it, I worked at it until I could do it,” Hill said in the tribute interview.
Hill also talked about reasons for establishing the Neighborhood Housing Services of the Inland Empire, which provides services and programming to help low-income people become homeowners.
No doubt, those early times contributed to his love of education, empowerment for the community, and tireless volunteerism at San Bernardino Public Library, and literacy project named in his honor, the Jack L. Hill Lifelong Learning Center.
Paula Miller, San Bernardino Public Library Literacy Coordinator, said the center was named after Mr. Hill not only in honor of his commitment to adult literacy, but that he was also instrumental in driving resources to support literacy for so many years.
Following the tribute by former Assemblymember Carter, she said Hill was happy to support the small display in his honor at the library featuring memorabilia from his service in the military.
The learning center helps children, but she said that it is largely focused on adult literacy.
“Even though Jack loved the kids, he also wanted to make sure that the adults were able to give back to their kids. When you talk about that, literacy in a whole is what he was,” she said.
The big question these days is trying to determine exactly how long Mr. Hill served the library, it is hard to tell. She said he has always been around for as long as anyone can remember.
“Even early on, he was on our Board of Trustees, and he’s served in many many different capacities,” she said. “He was always happy-go-lucky. He is going to be missed.”
Hill served as a member of the library board for 22 years.
Carolyn Tillman said that she is honored to have known Mr. Hill, both a gentleman and a giant, “born of that tough-as-steel generation.” She said he was a man of character and unstoppable faith, and diligent servant.
“He dedicated his energies toward building community. Mr. Hill brilliantly gained access to people’s hearts and as a result, locally broke barriers long before we saw political movement. He was visionary and wise,” she said.
Tillman described Mr. Hill as an exemplary local force, and she is mindful that because of his recommendation, she now also serves on the library board.
“I’m not sure if the current generation can appreciate the depth and breadth of his contributions,” she said. “He leaves a remarkable legacy.”
Memorial services for Mr. Hill have not yet been set as of press time.
To access the interview of Mr. Hill, http://ef-cbs.com/online-archive