Jesse Hill Jr., 86: Advised King, Carter, Atlanta mayors

Business and civic experience

Chairman, All Citizens Registration Committee, 1959-70; president and CEO, Atlanta Life Insurance Co., 1973-95.

Member, Georgia Board of Regents, 1973-84; chairman, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, 1978-79.

Member, King Center, 1974-95, including board chairman, 1979-95; chairman, Atlanta Campaign Committee (to build King Center), 1974.

Board seats: National Services Industries, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, Rich’s Department Store, Trust Company of Georgia (SunTrust Banks), Delta Air Lines, Knight-Ridder, S&H, Morse Shoe.

A look back

1926: Born May 30 in St. Louis to Nancy Dennis Martin and Jesse Sr.

1947: Receives Bachelor of Science in math and physics, Lincoln University, St. Louis.

1949: Receives Master of Business Administration with a concentration in actuarial science, University of Michigan.

1949: Moves to Atlanta after being hired as an assistant actuary with Atlanta Life, later becoming vice president and chief actuary.

1954: Returns home from two-year stint in military in South Korea during Korean War.

1955: Marries Azira Gonzalez, a registered nurse and graduate of the Grady School of Nursing, in Holguin, Cuba. They later have two daughters.

1960: Along with several others, launches the Atlanta Inquirer after concluding that the Daily World is not supportive of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

1969: Elected president of the National Insurance Association.

1973: Named Atlanta Life's third president and chief executive (first nonmember of founder's family to head the company).

1993: Resigns as CEO but remains as chairman.

1995: Retires as chairman.

1996: Sues Atlanta Life Insurance Co., accusing the company of reneging on an agreement to pay him $250,000 in supplemental retirement compensation. The company counterclaims that Hill opened a bank account without the company's knowledge and with company funds designated for charity.

1997: A federal judge rules that Atlanta Life is under no obligation to pay the supplement, but rejects Atlanta Life's counterclaim.

2001: Butler Street, from John Wesley Dobbs to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, is renamed Jesse Hill Jr. Drive.

2003: Co-chairs a 17-member Atlanta Advisory Commission to honor former Mayors Maynard Jackson and Ivan Allen Jr.

2006: Awarded Georgia Tech's Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Progress and Service. He is the first African-American to receive the prize.

2007: Receives 2007 Shining Light Award from Atlanta Gas Light and News/Talk 750 WSB.

2008: Honored during "Salute to Greatness" Awards Dinner for his excellence and commitment to social responsibility in the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sources: AJC news stories, Gale Biography. Compiled by News Researcher Joni Zeccola

Former staff writer Ernest Holsendolph contributed to this article.

Jesse Hill Jr., a former chief executive of Atlanta Life Insurance Co. and a key supporter of civil rights, never held a public office, but he had the ear, and phone number, of nearly every high-ranking politician in Georgia.

From Jimmy Carter to city councilmen, Hill worked behind the scenes of many political campaigns.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a recipient of Hill’s counsel, lauded the businessman, who died Monday at age 86, as an “essential leader for the transformation of the city of Atlanta.”

“He really represents the fundamental glue that bridged the divide between the business community and the political community in the city of Atlanta,” Reed said, “and he did so masterfully for more than two decades.”

In a period of historic ferment over civil rights and the changing dynamics of Atlanta, Hill showed uncommon leadership. He helped finance and advise civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; served as confidant to the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson; and tackled assignments as diverse as the launch of MARTA and the integration of the Atlanta public schools and the University of Georgia. He played an especially important role in forging understanding and alliances between local black and white leaders.

A man of firsts — first black president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, first black member of the University System’s Board of Regents — he worked to create new opportunities for the next generation.

Reed said Hill was more than a good businessman, he was a civic leader with vision, adding, “He made the decision, rather than focus solely on his own personal success, to be a part of the public conversation and of this city’s advancement.”

Hill possessed a forceful personality and a style that could intimidate. He had a rare ability to focus on any given problem, and an insistent manner that commanded the attention of those around him — many of whom he rousted from bed shortly after his own 5 o’clock rising time.

More than one Atlanta mover, shaker or news reporter awakened to a 6 a.m. phone call and the greeting, “This is Jesse Hill. … I was just thinking about something ….” Before the bleary-eyed person could clear his head and become indignant, Hill would have him wading through some big issue of the day.

“He didn’t call me at that hour,” joked longtime friend Herman J. Russell Sr. “My first wife warned him the first time that if he called the house again that early, he’d have to deal with her. So he’d wait until 7 a.m. to call me.”

Russell and Hill met at the Butler Street YMCA. Russell said he and Hill “latched on to each other,” and for more than 30 years, the two spoke daily.

“Jesse gave to this city, and the people of this city, in large quantities,” Russell said. “He’d give someone his last dollar. He’d give them time that maybe he didn’t really have to give, because he was quite busy running Atlanta Life.”

Andrew Young, who in 1972 was elected with Hill’s help to the first of three terms in Congress, described Hill as tenacious.

“If Jesse takes up something, he will not let it go,” he said, “and he took up everything.”

Young, who later served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as Atlanta’s mayor, said he never made a move without consulting Hill.

Another former mayor, Sam Massell, recalled Hill’s upfront style. Massell, who is Jewish, became the city’s first minority mayor largely with help from Hill, who organized black leaders in his support. But when Maynard Jackson announced in the early 1970s that he would run against Massell, Hill took Massell to lunch to tell him he intended to support Jackson.

“He helped me when nobody else would,” said Massell, who is president of the Buckhead Coalition. “We talk about white people being colorblind, but Jesse was colorblind. And I think that was hard to come by in that era because the black leadership was just growing into its power and influence, and for him to be able to treat whites the same way he did blacks was quite progressive.”

Hill, who spent 15 years as chairman of the board of the King Center, also had a gift for diplomacy. One of his most valuable contributions over the years was serving as a bridge between the black and white business communities in a broad range of matters important to the city.

In 2003, for example, he co-chaired a city commission on renaming the airport after Jackson’s death in 2003. The Jackson family and many black leaders spoke forcefully for changing the name from Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport to Atlanta Jackson International Airport, in part to recognize the $300 million expansion under Jackson’s leadership. Others, including many white leaders, favored standing by the Hartsfield name, in recognition of the early Atlanta mayor’s vision that became the airport.

Shirley Franklin, who was mayor at the time, asked Hill and Pete Correll, chief executive of Georgia-Pacific, to conduct hearings and make a recommendation. Through the commission’s work and the quiet lobbying of Hill came a compromise: Now the names of Hartsfield and Jackson grace the airport.

The bargain was typical of work done by Hill, a man who excelled at bridging differences and opening and maintaining dialogue. He helped smooth the transition to shared political power — a process that kept Atlanta peaceful and helped it maintain its reputation for racial cooperation.

“He had an impressive network,” Young said. “He had the kind of network where we would not have lost the T-SPLOST.”

Martin Luther King III found out getting the support of Hill, and that network, wasn’t an easy thing to do. King said when he ran for office in the ’80s, he assumed Hill would back him because of who he was.

“I had to prove that I was serious about the position,” he said. “Once I did, he was on board, but not before he saw I was serious.”

Though Hill’s adopted home was Atlanta, he was born in St. Louis. His mother worked in the steam room of the Pullman Co. laundry and was a neighborhood leader for the Urban League. His grandfather sold ice and watermelons in summer and coal in winter.

“I learned from her to be industrious,” Hill recalled in a 1995 interview, “and he taught me to be enterprising.”

He completed undergraduate studies in math and science at Lincoln University of Missouri in 1947 and graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1949, where he received a degree in actuarial science. Shortly thereafter, he signed on with Atlanta Life, his only employer until his retirement in 1995, except for two years spent in the military during the Korean War.

Hill married his wife, the former Azira Gonzalez of Holguin, Cuba, in 1955, after his discharge from the service. They had two daughters, Nancy Mercedes and Azira Dominga.

“He had three loves — Azira, Atlanta and Atlanta Life,” said Russell, himself a pioneering African-American entrepreneur.

By 1973, Hill was president and chief executive of Atlanta Life.

His business efforts served the company well in the 1970s. But like many businesses that started in the days of segregation, Atlanta Life faced steep competition as it took on larger national businesses. The company stagnated, and operating income dwindled.

Under pressure from the board, bolstered by outside directors that included auto dealer Greg Baranco, Hill saw his duties reduced and finally was forced into retirement in 1995. The move was marked by rancorous litigation over Hill’s final compensation.

Baranco, a leader in the turnover in leadership, said he regretted that bitterness marked the transition. In an interview shortly after the settlement was reached, he said: “We tried to save the idol, but in the end, we could not save him from himself.”

In the past few years, Hill had faced health challenges, including a ruptured appendix, a heart attack and dementia.

Funeral arrangements are pending. They will be handled by Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home, Historic West End Chapel.