Source: The Oak Ridger | Fred Strohl, Special to the Oak Ridger | March 26, 2019
U.S. Sen Lamar Alexander, from left, Tom Hill, former publisher of The Oak Ridger, and current Publisher and Editor of The Oak Ridger, Darrell G. Richardson in September 2015. (Russell Langley/ The Oak Ridger)
Tom Hill — who died Saturday, March 23 — was a tremendous influence on many people he hired over the years to work at The Oak Ridger, as well as those who worked with him in the Oak Ridge community and well beyond. I consider myself fortunate to have been in that category.
Tom Hill provided the opening to expand my career to the next level when he hired me as The Oak Ridger’s sports editor in 1981 and promoted me to wire news editor two years later. Tom also was partially responsible for enabling me to cover two special events I will always cherish — the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas and a White House luncheon for out-of-town editors in 1985 when President Reagan announced that Mikhail Gorbachev had assumed power in the old Soviet Union. I consider it a privilege to have had Tom Hill as my boss for six years.
Another young Oak Ridger reporter who got his start from Tom during the early 1980s, Darren Drevik, would go on to serve as editor of the old West Side Story in Farragut — which Tom owned during the 1980s – and who later published a book.
“It took less than a minute for the gregarious man behind the desk to put me at ease,” Drevik recalled of his first meeting with Hill. “From that first meeting on, I always enjoyed when Mr. Hill walked through the building. He was always smiling and I never felt intimidated. It was like a dad passing through checking on us.”
Former Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan said Hill provided wise counsel to him from his start in Oak Ridge politics and throughout his tenure as mayor.
“I did not arrive in Oak Ridge until after Tom sold the paper, but we used to talk frequently,” Beehan said. “It was obvious to me he was still very much interested in everything about Oak Ridge. He was always engaged.”
As publisher, Hill hired many high school and college students to work summers and within the school year covering various duties at the newspaper.
“I remember Mr. Hill always letting everyone do their job,” said Kristen Tobler, who started working at the newspaper as an Oak Ridge High School student in 1983 and still lives in Oak Ridge. “He liked to walk through the advertising room where I worked to chat, but he did not interfere with what people we were doing.”
Former state Rep. David Coffey worked closely with Hill not only when the former was in the state legislature, but before that as an Oak Ridge business owner.
“His quiet influence at The Oak Ridger and in creativity at the East Tennessee Economic Council (ETEC) have gone without notice,” Coffey said. “He would diligently be politically unbiased, but with a Democrat heart that could not be hidden. I treasured my time with him. Tom worked behind the scenes in many charitable ventures. Tom was the first chairman of the Anderson County United Way Pillars Society. As he completed his service, he passed the torch to me. The next generation will be challenged to match Tom’s achievements.”
Connie Adams, longtime Oak Ridger copy editor and daughter of former Oak Ridger publisher Don McKay — Hill’s predecessor — said Hill made contributions to the community as publisher, business leader and family man.
“My dad held Tom in the highest esteem as did both my husband Ben and myself,” Adams said. “Tom became one of Ben’s best friends. They founded the precursor to the Roane-Anderson Economic Council (later ETEC). Tom was active in the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce and he was generous in support of many civic activities.”
Gordon Fee, former president of Lockheed Martin Energy Systems and a longtime Oak Ridge community leader, said Hill helped shape postwar Oak Ridge from the time he arrived here during the middle 1960s.
“Tom became a community leader deeply interested in the economic future of Oak Ridge,” Fee said. “His tireless efforts with Don Maxwell and Gene Joyce helped build the foundation for today’s industrial recruitment efforts. Tom was a good friend and his legacy will long be remembered.”
Joe Culver, former Oak Ridger reporter and later managing editor, said Hill gave him one of his first big opportunities in journalism.
“I needed to have surgery to remove a module on my thyroid, but Tom and (former editor) Dick Smyser still hired me to write sports,” said Culver, who later served as director of public affairs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and currently lives in Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky. “I worked several times for The Oak Ridger over the years while also attending law school at UT. I covered the Oak Ridge activities surrounding the 1979 Three Mile Island (nuclear plant) accident, served as the paper’s science writer and was later named managing editor before going to ORNL. Tom’s departure leaves a hole in my heart and a void in those attributes that contribute to such things as integrity and loyalty and professionalism among our human population. I think Tom loved Oak Ridge as much as did anyone who has ever lived there.”
Former Oak Ridge Board of Education member Nancy England said Hill’s hiring of her mother, Ruth Moore, to serve as the newspaper’s garden columnist presented Oak Ridger readers with knowledge of gardening followed by many who enjoyed working in the yard.
“I am appreciative of the attention Tom paid to my mother in encouraging her to write the ‘Garden Gate’ column.” England said. “She had always been ‘Dick’s wife’ or ‘Nancy’s mother’ before the column, which Tom enthusiastically supported.”
Sandra Plant, former communications specialist in Oak Ridge, said Hill adhered to the concept of publishing a local newspaper with the highest journalism standards and integrity.
“So many of us counted on The Oak Ridger for all the years of Tom’s leadership as owner and publisher to provide us with lots of local news,” Plant remembered. “Tom was a genuinely good man. As his children were growing up, Tom was always there with them, attending their many different activities. He was active in the community, not because he had to as publisher, but because he was sincerely interested in Oak Ridge and its citizens.”
Plant praised Hill’s support of journalism education by helping to make possible the expanding programs in the University of Tennessee College of Communication and Information Science, including creation of the Alfred and Julia Hill lectures where notable science-related speakers are brought to the university each year. The lectures were named after his parents, the original owners of the newspaper.
“Tom was a thoughtful person,” Plant added. “I was badly injured in an accident 25 years ago and was homebound for several months. Tom showed up at my door more than once with gifts of carefully chosen books. I’ll never forget his kindness.”
Jennifer Plant Johnston, Sandra Plant’s daughter and a communications professional and freelance writer living in Nashville, recalled Hill as a youth coach and also as an early mentor when she started working at the newspaper when in high school.
“As high school students working in the newsroom, we were lucky enough to experience almost every aspect of the newsroom,” Johnston said. “Through my experience working for Mr. Hill, I went on to a career which included working for The Associated Press and in Vanderbilt’s News and Public Affairs Department.”
Donna Smith, The Oak Ridger’s current news editor, was one of the last people Tom hired before he and his sister, Mary Frances Hill Holton, sold the newspaper to Stauffer Communications.
“I remember Tom bringing me in twice for interviews before hiring me as a general assignment reporter a few months after I graduated from UT,” Smith said. “The first interview was one with Tom, the second with Joe Culver. Tom was always easy to talk to and I remember him telling me that he couldn’t imagine having any better references than a journalism professor I had and Horace V. Wells Jr. from The Clinton Courier-News, where I’d worked as a stringer during college. I’m thankful he gave me my start at The Oak Ridger, my second home for nearly 33 years.”
Fred Strohl worked nine years at The Oak Ridger and is retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Office of Communications and Community Outreach.