Better Than He Once Was

Murel Hill

If you told Murel Hill to arrive at Thanksgiving at 2:00 p.m., you better believe he was parking his car in the driveway at 1:55. In our family, you need not check your watch for the beginning of a party—just wait for the doorbell.

In the olden days—back when Thanksgiving was hosted in elaborate fashion at his house—this always seemed to cause quite a problem. I am the daughter of Dennis Hill, and like his father, he cannot stand to be late.  Since my mother was not born a Hill, she does not share this same genetic trait. Each and every holiday—fights would ensure because God forbid, we’d be late for a holiday at Murel’s house. Years later, after sharing many of these same stories with my cousins, we all laughed to find out that the same marital spats were happening over at Bob’s house too.

Murel HillYou see families have a genetic code about them—the unwritten rules that only those in the inner circle truly understand. What’s more, these codes have a way of being passed, from generation to generation. In literature, I’ve heard it compared to as stones, in the same way a stone details the history of its land—our history is carried in our habits, our traits, and our stories. They say that a family’s history can be passed from one generation to another through this code—sure, it’s in the genes, but you can also find it in the sideways glances you saw on your grandpa’s face as a child, but never really understood. It’s in the deep sighs I give my family the very moment I realize that yes, we are bound to be late for another family holiday (sorry Grandpa), and its buried deep inside the stories, maybe I never heard, but somehow I always knew.

For many of us in this room, our history, our genetic code, resonates with Murel Hill.

I imagine he hated being late, because he was a farm kid. Murel Hill was born in the winter of 1926 in the sleepy town of Ramsey, Illinois. Back then, Ramsey had only 772 people in the entire town and you could buy a Model T Ford for about $338.  Murel’s parents worked the farm, which mean that by default, so did the children. Roy Dean, Grandpa’s brother, remembers being a young boy and growing irritated at how grandpa, 7 years older, would often times sleep in, while Dean would hurry out to Milk the Cows. One morning, Dean decided he wasn’t jumping to anymore, and cozied up to grandpa as he slept, to keep warm. Within minutes both boys awoke to gallons of ice-cold water being dumped on their heads—because that’s what happens when a Hill is late.

Murel and Dean’s father was a deeply religious man, who didn’t allow the children to play cards, see movies, or partake in many social activities at all—all traits that didn’t necessarily sit well with the young and rebellious Murel.  He was rowdy, cocky, and had a deep seeded need to seek freedom. It wasn’t long before he earned the nick name Bull—a designation that would stay with him through high school, in Maple Park, IL. By 17, Murel and his father were often at odds, and after pushing his dad’s limits too far one night after playing a game of pool, Grandpa decided to run away, to avoid his punishment.  Of course, 17-year-old boys may not be the best planners–because he quickly ran out of money, turned himself in at the local police station, and had to bear a 2 hour ride home with his dad—and I imagine that was not his only punishment that evening.

But there was one place where Murel’s fearlessness was always rewarded—the basketball court. Growing up in several different small towns, legend has it, he was the best around. A leader on and off the court, all of us grew up hearing stories of when Murel Hill played basketball. Back then, they shot under handed, had no three-point line, and I am pretty sure, he never dunked a ball—but something tells me, he may have found a way to still out score us all. Today, the third generation, and 6 of his 12 grandchildren will step foot on the basketball court this winter—something he found great joy in.

By the time Murel graduated high school, World War II was well on its way, and like most men of his generation, and he quickly enlisted. Murel was a Navy Man, and became a Seaman First Class in 1944. He drove a Landing Craft Vehicle all around the Pacific and in September of 1945, in Tokyo Bay, just a short distance from the USS Missouri; he watched the Japanese surrender to the United States. I imagine him, a young man, coming back from the war, shaped from the great depression, coming of age during Roosevelt’s New Deal and finally fighting a war himself, and I gotta say to myself—no wonder he was a huge Democrat! If you knew Murel today, there is no doubt, you knew his politics. From where he stood on helping the poor, to recent funding of the Veterans Hospitals, and universal healthcare, Grandpa was a true Democrat to the core. But what I loved about him most was his love of communicating it. While he and his brother share very different political beliefs, one of his favorite pastimes was their telephone conversations. To everyone else, it is an argument—but to him, it was a chess match. And he loved every minute of it.

When you were the best basketball player in a town of 398 people, everyone knows your name, and Deloris Motz was no exception. The way she tells it, he returned from war skinny, brazen, and he was “no angel.” She liked how was a tad possessive of her, and he liked how she was young and beautiful.  The couple married young and together had two sons, Dennis and Robert.  Grandpa made his living selling cars for over 40 years.  The life of a salesman is tough, but doing it for 40 years requires a sort of honesty and integrity hard to find in the car industry. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the area over the age of 60 who didn’t buy a car, at one point or another, from Murel Hill.

Life, at one point or another, always seems to find it low points.  I don’t ever recall being told much about Murel’s drinking years. I guess I just always knew he found the strength to recover from them. By the time I was born, Murel Hill never took another drink again.  Perhaps he dug deep inside himself and discovered whatever code his father had passed, unbeknownst to him, the one he always tried to push away.  Those deep held beliefs in scripture—in a God who forgives and gives us strength to battle our demons.  And maybe he found that boy again, the one they called Bull—who was fearless and brave. Whatever it was, he chose God, Family, and sobriety.  And for that reason, none of his grandchildren ever saw him take drink.  Little did Grandpa know, that through the years, several family friends have shared with us, stories of theirs, when they have struggled with similar demons. It was Grandpa who showed up next to their hospital bed un-announced, It was Grandpa who prayed with them, or shared with them his story.  He was not only a good friend in fun times, he showed up for you when you truly needed it.  And those people whom he helped have never forgotten that.

As a father and grandfather, Murel was fiercely loyal and extremely protective. He took your side on things even when you didn’t deserve it. If your last name was Hill, well, that meant you were right, and he would face the world in support of you.  Behind closed doors of course, that wasn’t always the case.  Murel had extremely high expectations of his family.  He wanted the best for us, and he urged and pushed and willed us all to exceed those expectations.

His oldest son inherited his gift for basketball. After one particularly good game, where Denny scored 35 points…he couldn’t wait to come home and hear how pleased his dad finally was. Imagine his surprise when Murel said, “what are you smiling about, the guy you guarded had 29 points…so you only get 6.”

On the golf course, a place particularly sacred to Murel and his youngest son Bob, the same pressure took place. Bob was growing into a great golfer and Murel was dead set on seeing him succeed. When Murel finally started to lose to his son regularly, he looked at Bob and said, “It’s time for you to play with the big boys now, you aren’t getting any better playing with me.” Pushing Bob out of the nest was Murel’s way of teaching his son the game of golf, and in other ways, giving him the confidence to move on without him.

It’s a hard balance to push and pull with your family, and I’d be lying if I said he always got it right.  I had my first and only argument with him when I was 18. My family was going through some big changes and everyone was taking sides. Him and I got into it pretty heavily and as he got louder, I got louder—and there we were—two Hill’s—violently opposing each other and not listening to a word the other had to say. I remember I hung up on him that day.  My heart pounded, my hands shook.  And I let myself believe for just a moment that he didn’t care. Three days later, he bought me tires for my car.

That was his way—He was really bad at apologizing. But the truth is, so am I. I’ll venture to say, it’s a Hill thing—deeply embedded in those silly genes of ours.  What makes us human is our unique mixture of mistake and triumph. But what makes us family is that silly code—the thing that calls back to each other—what pulls us home.  Our ability to decipher love in a set of brand new car tires.

Grandpa yearned for a better life for his children, and you could find his love in so many places:

  • It was hidden in half time phone calls to his son during every Bulls game
  • Tucked inside never missing a sporting event of his grandchildren
  • It’s in the way he always greeted us at the door for every holiday
  • It’s why he’d pluck your dandelions out of your yard with his bare hands because you can’t seem to get your yard quite right
  • It’s how he always brought the $50 dollar bills out special at Christmas time, and handed them out one by one
  • You’ll find it in the giant bear hugs and how he could make his body seem so small when a grandchild would sit on his lap
  • How he’d promise us if he won the lottery that he’d buy us all the same car
  • Of course you’ll find it’s in that pressure to always succeed, to accomplish more, earn more, be better
  • And finally it’s in the way he always came back for more…after every fight, every disappointment, and every mistake we made. But most importantly after every mistake he made.

I guess it’s just in the code—that place we discover the better parts of each other and best parts of ourselves.