A giant of a man

PHOTO: Paul Harper Hill & Mary Bell Turner Hill, 2000.


I remember a hot August day in Mississippi, a day so hot that photos show white tapers in candelabra warped from the heat. The setting was our home, and my sister Mary was marrying a tall, dark and handsome sailor.

To a 5-year-old girl Paul Harper Hill at 6’6” looked like the giants of my fairy tales, and he has remained a giant of a man for 61 years – a good man with a zest for life who never met a stranger.

Paul was a baker in the U.S. Navy aboard aircraft carriers and a destroyer in the battle zones of WWII. True to his duty of feeding the men who flew the planes and manned the decks, Paul’s love of cooking and baking remained one of life’s great joys.

One of the happiest summers of my life was spent with Mary and Paul and their little boy Johnny on Chincoteague Island in Chesapeake Bay while Paul was stationed a ferry ride away in Norfolk, Va. That summer was filled with catching crabs, steaming clams and watching the “Penny Pony Roundup” as wild Spanish ponies made the annual swim from nearby Assoteague Island. (Mary’s Sunday School teacher, Marguerite Henry, wrote of such days in her children’s classic, “Misty of Chincoteague.”)

Upon leaving the Navy in 1951, Paul worked at Colonial Bakery. To prepare himself for a career with the postal service, he attended college. He liked to joke that he took math courses to learn to convert his Navy recipes, like biscuits calling for a hundred pounds of flour, down to family size.

We had all ended up in Jackson, Miss., and I remember one day in the 50s when Paul drove up with a metal contraption which he set up in our backyard. For the first time in our lives we tasted barbecued chicken halves, and they remain the best I’ve ever eaten.

While continuing his work with the post office, Paul became a baker and cook at the Mississippi National Guard Armory. Out came the old recipes.

In 1975, Paul was awarded the Mississippi Commendation Medal, awarded to any member or former member of the Mississippi National Guard for “meritorious service.”

Gov. William Winter, a childhood friend of Paul’s in Grenada, in 1982 presented him the Mississippi Magnolia Medal for “distinguishing himself through outstanding service and extraordinary achievement in behalf of the Mississippi National Guard.”

Upon retirement, he began to bake in earnest, making mult-tiered wedding cakes for young folks in the church he served as deacon. Always there was good food, candies, cakes and pies. He was happiest in his kitchen.

When I was at the Jackson newspaper with access to free press passes, Paul and I had great fun attending plays and art auctions and the International Ballet Competition.

One Christmas Paul conspired with his grandson Phillip Hill, now working on his PhD in opera at UT-Austin, to publish a cookbook – a combination of his WWII recollections and favorite recipes titled “The Measured History of Paul Hill.” The books were surprise gifts for every member of the family, and the two guys pulled it off.

During one of those 50th anniversaries of WWII, the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., ran a full-page feature story about Paul and his cookbook. There are photos of Paul surrounded by freshly baked breads and cakes and pies. The reporter, Gary Pettus, told me he had never had a tastier assignment.

Several years ago Paul had a leg amputated. He hitched up his prosthesis and never slowed up. Then, about three years ago, he was diagnosed with a stomach aneurysm – a ticking time bomb within. I told him he was like a Timex watch: “Takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.” He got a kick out of my wry sense of humor!

On the day the aneurysm ruptured he had been by the store to buy ingredients for a baking session with his daughter the next day. Miracle of miracles, he survived the aneurysm after paramedics shocked his heart and administered CPR.

Then, this 85-year-old man put up a fight, demanding surgery. His zest for life refused to yield to the inevitable.

Paul and Mary, who died in 2005 after 58 years his bride, have four children – John, Robert, Jeanette and Dovie – and they were at his bedside when he died Monday, 7 April. He leaves nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by two young granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.

Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. …” I’d like to think there’s a kitchen in one where a happy reunion is taking place.

Paul will be buried today at high noon with full military honors and a 21-gun salute.


Family and friends will gather following this service at the Mary and Paul Hill Fellowship Hall at Flag Chapel Baptist Church in Jackson, named in honor of service to their church and community.

I will be there in spirit.


August 4, 1922 – April 7, 2008



Papamoka said...

My personal thoughts and prayers on your loss my friend. This was a great tribute to what seems to be a great man.

Anonymous said...

It is at this moment high noon and my heart is with you and your family. What a loving tribute, BJ. I can feel his goodness and the love you have for him. God bless you. Faye

Frodo and Sam said...

Frodo is sorely tempted to today recall something to make you smile.

Another time.

Today is for goin' home.

eowyn said...

BJ, as always, the beauty of your writing and your memories bring everything to life. It all seems to be Right There. I am so sorry for the loss of such a dear friend, but, you know, it sounds like his was a life done absolutely right. Nothing compares to that.

Jan said...

A beautiful tribute to a man you dearly loved. Jan can smell that home made bread and pasteries baking. Surely this is a grand homecoming for your loved on. Heartfelt symathy and prayers for you and your loved ones.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sis,
I just read the tribute to Paul. It was wonderful. Wish you were here with us. It brought tears to
my eyes because you write so eloquently and remember so many facts. You are truly our family historian and journalist. We are proud of you and love you so much.
I love you, Martha.
P.S Hey B.J., I did as you ask and Mom saw and read your blog.
She is impressed, as I always am, of your writing expertise. And we enjoyed everyone's comments.
I love you too. Deb

Jeanette said...

B.J. - Thank you so much for this wonderful tribute to dad. In the service today, the pastor stated that it was the end of an era. To His children and all who knew dad I'm sure all would agree. When I saw your surviving brothers and sisters today, I thought of you and how much we miss you here in Mississippi. Thank you B.J. - My heart is full.

Betty Joe said...

So sorry to hear of Paul's passing. People like him will live forever as long as you keep telling their stories! It is what God put you on this earth to do!


Eowyn said...

Yes, Betty Jo, yes! that about sums up a lot.

Shari N. said...

That was beautiful. Brought tears to my eyes. I wish I could have met him! He sounds like he was a very happy person and fun to be around, although fattening!
Love you,

Anonymous said...

Thank you B.J.,for such a lovely tribute to Uncle Paul. He was a pillar among men. He will always be the sweetest of uncles in my life. He loved Aunt Mary and his
children and grand children with
such happiness and care, as he knew they were truly "gifts from God". He is in Heaven and reunited
with the love of his life-Aunt Mary. They were a team and now are a team again. We love you Uncle Paul (Tall Paul-to my sons).
Love, Deb

Anonymous said...

P.S. Uncle Paul give Aunt Mary a big hug and kiss from me. I love you, Deb XOXOXOXO's

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