Hats Off to Dr. Willie Hill, Jr.

You may already know Dr. Willie Hill, Jr.

Over the years, the irrepressible Western Massachusetts resident has worn many hats: Director of the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center (retired after serving 20 years). Past president of the National Association for Music Education, the largest arts organization in the country. Esteemed music professor. Past president of the International Association for Jazz Education. Accomplished jazz musician and performer. Author.

Dr. Hill as a young drum major (courtesy of the University of Massachusetts)
Dr. Hill as a young drum major (courtesy of the University of Massachusetts)

Wearing a very distinctive hat, Dr. Hill made history at the very first Super Bowl halftime show. As the head drum major for Grambling State University, he led the marching bands for two schools onto the field: the historically Black Grambling and the predominately white University of Arizona. It was 1967 in a country roiled by racial tensions. As the bands played together, 50 million people watched on TV.

Dr. Hill, with his wife Beverly, wear other hats: philanthropists. He served for nine years as a Trustee of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. They volunteer, serve on boards and nonprofit committees, and mentor young people. Beverly gives back through membership in several sororities. They support causes ranging from clean energy to education to health.

Dr. Hill explained their roots as philanthropists:

Dr. Hill and his wife, Beverly
Dr. Hill and his wife, Beverly

“My wife and I constantly try to give opportunities to students and to neighbors to help them overcome obstacles that are stopping them from moving their lives forward.

We grew up in the deep South. I’m from Mobile, Alabama and Beverly grew up in Louisiana. When people did not have food to eat, my father would go fishing. He would catch shrimp and crabs. He would always have some left over and he would share it with individuals in our community.

In Louisiana, they would have a fish fry or a crab or shrimp boil, and they would have a big table outside their home. They would just dump all the seafood on the table, and as people passed by their lawn, they would help themselves. They had no idea who the people were.

All of these things helped shape my life. Seeing the way people gave. They did not necessarily have all the financial resources to help people, but they knew that if they could give a can of corn to somebody, that’ll help them get through dinner that night or whatever the case might be.

So, sharing and caring were embedded in my fabric from the very, very beginning. I grew up extremely poor, but we were rich in terms of loving and giving and sharing.”

Reflecting on TENacity, the 2021 Black Philanthropy Month theme, Dr. Hill said:

“We have to continue to strive. We cannot give up, even though obstacles seem high. We have to keep moving forward and never, ever, say ‘no.’ If you give up there’s no hope, and you can inspire hope by being a good role model…

What really inspired me during my time at the Foundation was going out and talking with people from all different backgrounds and experiences about what the real community needs were—and then working together to solve problems.”