Sen. Jack Hill was a humble grocer from rural Georgia who rose to become one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers.
He never took credit for a legislative triumph, even though everyone knew it was he who got it done. And he had impeccable penmanship.
These are among the many recollections of friends, colleagues and cataloguers who knew the 75-year-old state senator as a towering figure in Georgia politics who buried his pride and burned the midnight oil to get the budget passed each year.
He scored money for libraries, parks, fishing spots, schools, roads and an airport runway in Southwest Georgia. He saw to it that millions of dollars in construction funds went to state colleges like his alma mater, Georgia Southern University. He led the Senate side of the budget-setting equation in the General Assembly for almost two decades.
And he did it quietly, without any fuss or glory, according to those who knew him.
“It kind of bothers me that he’s no longer with us,” said Billy Trapnell, the former mayor of Metter and a friend of Hill. “The people of Georgia will miss something special and may not even know it.”
Hill, R-Reidsville, was found dead in his office around 5:30 p.m. Monday, said Tattnall County Sheriff Kyle Sapp. His legacy was quickly hailed throughout Georgia by business leaders, educators and elected officials like Gov. Brian Kemp, who described him as “a gentle giant.”
State Rep. Bill Werkheiser, who shared a district boundary with Hill, recalled the many Sunday nights he arrived in Atlanta for the legislative session after a three-hour drive from his home in Glennville to find a lone light on in the state Capitol building. It would always be Hill, working on the budget.
“There was no one who put in more work and did more hours,” said Werkheiser, R-Glennville. “This one’s a kick in the gut.”
“He always did it so quietly,” Werkheiser added. “And if it was ever brought up, he was always giving credit to anybody but him.”
Hill immediately became one of the legislature’s most influential members in 2003 when he was made chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, tasked with overseeing lengthy and often testy negotiations each year over the state budget.
First elected as a Democrat, Hill had switched parties after the 2002 elections, helping Republicans capture a majority in the Senate they still hold today. He held onto the budget-writing post until his death.
Many who knew Hill marveled at the small-town grocer’s ability to manage billions of dollars in the state budget. Often, he saw local issues as opportunities to improve financing for services across the state.
Trapnell, whose tenure as Metter mayor from 1994 through 2017 overlapped with Hill, recalled an occasion when Hill was asked to help drum up money for construction of a local library. Setting aside money in the budget specifically for that library would have been “no problem” for Hill, Trapnell said.
But after hearing from the state librarian about the rough conditions facing all of Georgia’s public libraries, Hill decided a better approach would be to open up grant funding that any library in the state could apply for, not just one in his backyard.
“So many libraries got fixed,” Trapnell said. “He truly cared about the people of Georgia.”
First elected in 1990, Hill was among the longest serving lawmakers in the General Assembly at the time of his death. He represented the 4th Senate District covering several Southeast Georgia counties including Tattnall, Evans, Bulloch, Candler, Emanuel and Effingham.
Local luminaries in Hill’s district guessed the smart grocer from Reidsville would do well at the Capitol, said Mickey Peace, publisher of The Claxton Enterprise. But with his soft-spoken nature, few foresaw the heights he would reach.
“Quiet, unassuming, with an ‘aw shucks’ demeanor and boyish good looks, I think he practiced well the art of political persuasion without the public controversy that often dogs those who seek and hold office,” Peace said.
Newspaper reporters, editors and publishers could always count on Hill answering his phone or calling back whenever they had questions, said Pam Waters, former editor of The Glennville Sentinel. He packed his answers with keen insights on the budget, local business matters or Georgia agriculture, always mindful to be courteous and respectful with reporters.
“He was a politician like you just don’t find anymore,” said Carvy Snell, publisher of The Metter Advertiser. “If he was working on something, you knew it was going to be done by the book.”
Others, particularly in the General Assembly, saw Hill as a mentor. Sen. Blake Tillery, whose Vidalia-based district borders Hill’s, said he spent countless hours working with the veteran lawmaker and because the younger Tillery “simply would not leave his office.”
Hill taught the old-school skills of statesmanship, Tillery said, from replying personally to constituent calls and emails to showing other lawmakers the legislative ropes to displaying a “penmanship [that] was frame-worthy.”
“All while managing to write a budget for our state,” said Tillery, R-Vidalia.
“He could literally change the direction of the Senate through a leaning of his head,” Tillery said. “He is irreplaceable. His shoes will never be filled.”