As a teenager in the 1950s, I, along with my parents, saw Dr. E. L. Hill fairly often. His daughter Sarah was a lifelong friend of my mother’s. And whenever Sarah and her husband Bill Hoel visited from their home in New York City, we would all wind up at some point over at Dr. and Mrs. Hill’s house on Springdale, to which the Hills had retired. The family had lived most of their Athens lives on Cobb Street, about where Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital sits now. I have fond memories of those times.
Dr. Hill was an impressive old man—not in an imperious way. I picture the dapper gentleman sitting in a lawn chair behind his house: calm but authoritative, soft-spoken and with a very kind face. I thought he looked like a smart man. Everyone was keen to make sure the 80-year-old patriarch had everything he needed. I sat by him often, because every treat at the gathering was brought to him first, so I was second. I think that’s where I learned to like cheese straws with lots of cayenne in them.
As I write this, it comes to me that most of my memories of the Rev. Dr. Hill are actually other people’s memories.
Dr. Hill was an understanding person. He understood what his flock needed, and he understood what his own family needed. His wife and two daughters were never overlooked. In the 1930s, many young women in Athens, including my mother and her sister (later Mary Cobb Neighbors), went to New York City to work or go to school. Dr. Hill’s daughter Sarah wanted to do that. The middle-aged minister worried about this. He thought Sarah Graham Hill, after college, should just get a job in Athens—as a secretary or a teacher or a nurse or something. “Sallie” had other ideas. After a few months of fairly cordial discussions with her father, Sallie said, “Daddy, if you will give me whatever you might have as my ‘inheritance,’ I will go to New York and try to make it—for one year. If I don’t succeed, I shall return to Athens and take one of those jobs you’ve suggested.”
By the 1980s, Sarah and Bill had retired from New York City to an apartment at the corner of Chase Street and Cobb. In the late ‘80s, I said to Sarah Hill Hoel, “You were NOT going to come back, were you?” The lovely lady replied, “Oh! I did! But it was 55 years later.” Dr. Hill had understood his precious girl—and he let her go.
Dr. Hill was a very loving person. It was the University of Georgia’s famous Dean of Men William Tate who said, “Although I came from five generations of Methodists, occasionally I would walk across the street and sit with the pretty Presbyterian girls to listen to Dr. E. L. Hill preach, always on the love of God for man.”
Dr. Hill was a considerate person. My grandfather, Andrew Cobb Erwin, had never been baptized. His father was a Presbyterian, but his mother belonged to Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Judge Alex. S. Erwin—not as broadminded as Dr. Hill—thought Episcopalians might as well be Catholic. Granddaddy’s sisters were christened at Emmanuel, but he and his brothers just later joined the three different Athens churches of their wives. Granddaddy refused to be baptized on Sunday morning in front of the full congregation, because he knew a man in the choir, and he knew how that man acted the other six days of the week. So Andrew Erwin told Dr. Hill he was not going to be baptized in front of that fellow in the choir. Dr. Hill did the job on a Wednesday afternoon, just the two men.
Dr. Hill was very good at his job as a pastor, a shepherd. My Grandmother Erwin spoke of how often, in times of trial or not, this man was on the scene. Nana often wondered how Dr. Hill had learned that he was needed somewhere: at her home, at their neighbors homes or in another place in town or countryside. He always seemed to show up when he was needed.
Dr. Hill was quite broadminded. Phinizy Spalding told me that all of the Athens Phinizys and their relations thought Dr. E. L. Hill was “a combination of God and Moses and Moses Waddell, wrapped up into one.” I heard that when Phinizy’s mother, the young Presbyterian bride Bolling Phinizy, was married at the Billups Phinizy mansion on Milledge Avenue by the groom Hughes Spalding’s Catholic priest from Atlanta, Dr. Hill sat on the side cheerfully, even approvingly (with, as the couple’s son put it, “nary a sour note”).
Dr. Hill resisted prejudice. Many stories have come down to us about the Rev. Hill and the Irish Travelers, a nomadic group that came to the United States during the years of the Great Famine in Ireland. Athens people called these people, wrongly, “Gypsies.” The pastor of First Presbyterian conducted many funerals over so many years when the Travelers came to bury their loved ones in Oconee Hill Cemetery. He met with them, he joined them, he performed each one’s last service. He often took one of his two little daughters with him, even to Bernstein’s Funeral Home for the “Gypsy wake” and for bountiful but peculiar food.
Dr. Hill believed deeply in justice. The Ku Klux Klan was important politically in Athens and nationwide in the 1920s. The monthly meetings of the local Klan were secret, of course. But my grandfather or his first-cousin Lamar Cobb Rucker would “learn of” the time and place of a meeting. And along with Dr. E. L. Hill, they would attend and sit right on the front row (to quote my grandfather, “as if we had good sense”). It was awkward, especially for the Klan members. They could not get any business done. The Klansman who was leading the meeting could do nothing but mumble a few pleasantries then call for an adjournment—in hopes that the information about the next meeting could be kept a secret. It never was. And the Klan in the city of Athens soon disbanded. By the 1930s, Bogart was as close to town as they got.
Dr. E. L. Hill had a keen sense of humor. I knew that my grandfather loved spending time with Dr. Hill. Granddaddy always saw the “funny” in things and expected his friends to do that, too. So I figured Dr. Hill surely enjoyed a laugh. My great-aunt told me once about a relative she could not stand. She said that he had “the morals of a running dog!” When I heard that this man was Dr. Hill’s good fishing buddy, I wanted more information. I asked my aunt, “Did it seem strange to people in Athens that, for a fishing trip, Dr. Hill chose that particular person?” The old lady replied, “Not a bit. I can’t think of anything positive to say about that man’s morals. But he was funny!”
I wanted to hear more about our venerable pastor’s “running-dog” fishing buddy. What my aunt had told me did not fit with my notions of a dignified Presbyterian minister. I pushed my great-aunt for more about this local character. I listened intently. But all I heard was more roundabout ways to say that he was, yes, a favorite fishing buddy of Dr. E. L. Hill’s. I asked my aunt if she were serious. “Indeed,” the old lady answered. “Things like that didn’t bother Dr. Hill. He liked everybody.”
This piece is excerpted from a forthcoming history of Athens First Presbyterian Church on the occasion of its 200th anniversary.
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