My mentor and friend David Jon Hill was one of a kind
Mr. Knowles, former managing editor of The Plain Truth, published by the Worldwide Church of God, makes his living as a writer. This article is Mr. Knowles' tribute to his friend David Jon Hill, whose article about the early days of the Radio/Worldwide Church of God appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of THE JOURNAL. While in the processing of writing a series of four articles that were to appear in this newspaper, Mr. Hill died Nov. 24. THE JOURNAL hopes to publish Mr. Hill's second, and as it turns out last, installment in the December issue.
By Brian Knowles
MONROVIA, Calif.--It was Monday morning, Nov. 24. I had just returned home from doing some grocery shopping. I unpacked the bags, cleaned up the kitchen a bit and decided to check my E-mail. Three messages announced the death of my beloved friend and mentor, David Jon Hill.
The one from his son Jonathan made it official: "Sad news. My Dad . . . passed away in his sleep last night, the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day . . . I found him this morning when I was getting ready to leave for work. He died peacefully in his sleep."
I was stunned. I walked zombielike into the living room and told my wife, Lorraine, "Jon Hill died last night."
She froze in place, a shadow of sadness passing over her countenance.
Another blow. Another key member of the first generation of leadership in the Worldwide Church of God had passed from the scene.
It was only a short time ago that Jon's second wife, Lin, had died. And, more recently, Garner Ted Armstrong had passed abruptly from the scene.
Series of articles
Robert Kuhn and I had been working closely with Jon Hill on a series of articles, the first of which appeared in a recent issue of THE JOURNAL. You can also find it on the Association for Christian Development's Web site, www.godward.org.
Jon was writing the second article in the series, and his son had just sent me a batch of pictures to accompany the articles. Jon had missed the deadline for the current issue of THE JOURNAL, but many readers were eagerly anticipating his article in the next edition.
Ironically, he said to me on the phone just last week, "I hope I can get these articles finished before I'm outta here."
He must've had a premonition. He seemed to have a sense of urgency about getting them completed.
Jon suffered from two life-threatening diseases, emphysema and congestive heart failure. I imagine he succumbed to one or the other.
Jon's passing should not go unnoticed. He was one of those larger-than-life characters who left an indelible impression on everyone who came into his life. He certainly left an impression on mine. He was a friend and a mentor. In spite of the roller-coaster ride that was his life, I have nothing but fond memories of Jon.
I named one of my sons after him.
An apprentice in Oklahoma
From 1969 to 1971 I pastored congregations for the WCG in Tulsa and Ponca City, Okla. Jon Hill, Dave Antion, Richard Prince and John Mitchell had all pastored the Tulsa church before I assumed that responsibility.
In those days we ministers worked six and one-half days a week. Monday morning was report time, an odious task if there ever was one.
I tried to make it more fun by jazzing up my reports with humor, cartoons and other nonstandard items. Jon Hill was one of the HQ recipients of those reports. He liked reading mine.
He decided, apparently along with his assistant, Dr. Robert Kuhn, that I might make a good writer. So he mailed me an SCM portable electric typewriter and told me to start writing articles for The Good News and Tomorrow's World.
I'd taken only three months of typing in grade 10, but I gave it a shot.
The first article I wrote was "About False Prophets." If I remember correctly, it was based on Zechariah 13. The idea was that the false prophets of the world would eventually call themselves the FFA, the Future Farmers of America (Zechariah 13:5).
Jon edited the article and rendered it publishable, and my writing career was launched. A second short article followed on how to lead an opening prayer. Both pieces were semihumorous.
I kept on writing, and Jon kept on publishing my work. Sometimes he'd edit my articles with a squishy red or blue felt tip and return them to me for rewriting. In those days we didn't have computers or E-mail.
Entering the lion's den
In 1971 Jon obtained permission from the church-administration department (CAD) to bring me in to HQ as a personal assistant to him. Jim Redus replaced me in Oklahoma. I shared an office next to Jon's with Robert Kuhn, Orlin Grabbe and one other man.
For me, it was some kind of creative golden age. I took naturally to the processes of writing and editing. I even did a few crude spot illustrations for the magazine.
I especially loved to pick the brains of two guys who were smarter than I: Jon and Robert. I loved working on Tomorrow's World magazine. I think it was the best and most substantive magazine the WCG ever published. For most of my run I served as its "associate editor."
At some point I began managing the publication and Jon wanted to give me the title of managing editor. It wasn't until the last issue that my name appeared with that title, though I'd been doing the job for some time.
At the height of the magazine's success Herbert Armstrong enigmatically killed it. It had been bringing on board something like 1,000 new coworkers a month. We had the circulation up to 875,000. I'll never understand that one.
One of the joys of working on Tomorrow's World was getting to correspond with Basil Wolverton on behalf of Jon, who was editor. The correspondence between Jon and Basil was screamingly funny. Basil had been, with his wife, a Vaudeville act in the early years, and he was just naturally hilarious.
We were running Basil's "Story of Man" serially in TW. He'd send us his copy and his illustrations by mail. Then he'd "wait by the mailbox" for our reply.
When Basil would come down from Oregon to visit Pasadena, Jon would take both of us out to lunch. Basil and I would draw cartoons on the napkins in the restaurant. I still have one of his felt-tip-pen pictures of a man flying.
During the TW period Jon told me he'd "put my name in for evangelist."
"After all," he said, "by putting together TW you're doing the work of an evangelist."
I asked him later, "What did they say when you submitted my name?"
"They laughed me to scorn," he replied, laughing me to scorn.
That was as close as I ever came to being high ranking. I guess someone felt I was rank enough as it was.
In those days my wife and I had never owned a home, though we'd been married for more than a decade and had three children. Jon arranged for me to get a bonus of $3,000 to put a down payment on our first home.
In 1972 that was a vast amount of money to us. Our house payments were $225 a month, and it was a stretch to make them, but what a great feeling it is to own your own home!
Jon the teacher
Jon Hill taught several classes at Ambassador College in Pasadena. His most famous was Old Testament Survey. He owned that class. Many a student roared with laughter as Jon made those OT stories of Abraham and Sarah live. His sense of humor was unique, based on a keen and penetrating understanding of human nature.
Jon understood that the best writing and the most memorable sermons are built around stories, not "string of pearls" concordance-like Scripture passages. Much of the Bible is narrative.
Jon was one of the WCG's best speakers and writers because he was a natural storyteller. His memories of life were told in anecdotes. He seemed to see the Bible as a series of scenes in which people acted out minidramas that depicted life's great spiritual truths. Jon saw the humor in everything, even in the direst of situations.
Jon also taught a class called Theological Journalism. Eventually he passed that class on to me to teach and I became an official faculty member at AC. I also guest-lectured in his OTS class and speech classes and occasionally in Epistles. (Dave Antion usually invited me to teach the book of Ephesians. To this day the reasons for that are enigmatic to me.)
When the powers that be decided to expand the readership of The Good News from members only to members and "coworkers" (people who regularly donated money to the church), I was again named managing editor. This gave me a new opportunity to work closely with my mentor, Jon Hill.
I remember one day using the phrase "different strokes for different folks" in an article. He spiked it.
"I don't know whether you realize it or not, Brian, but that phrase has sexual overtones."
The thought had never entered my mind. I'm glad he caught it.
Permission to chew
There was a point at which Jon Hill began letting down on his job.
He'd come in to work very early in the morning--earlier than most--and leave around 2 or 2:30 p.m. Work was followed by an assortment of sauna baths, swimming-pool games, beer drinking and other nonproductive nonsense. (He loved his board games, especially Risk.).
Word was getting around that Jon's lifestyle wasn't exactly commensurate with his titles and stature in the church. I could sense the Sanhedrin sharpening its long knives. I felt led to take a bold step.
With much fear and trembling, and after prayer, I entered Jon's spacious office on the fourth floor of the Hall of Administration, closed the door behind me and said to him, "Mr. Hill, I'd like to ask for your permission to chew you out."
Without flinching, he said, "Permission granted."
I lit into him for at least half an hour, preaching to him about his image, his work habits, his reputation, what his critics were saying about him.
I said: "Mr. Hill, with all due respect, you've got to go back to work, put in the hours and get something done. Your staff can't prop you up indefinitely."
At the end of it I was shaking in my boots, expecting the worst.
He sat there, studying me as only he could do. I waited for a tirade about insubordination or something akin to it. I imagined that immediately after that I would be fired.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he spoke: "Brian, that took one of two things. It either took a lot of guts, or it took a lot of love. I choose to believe it was the latter. Thank you."
We never said another word about it, but he took the words of a subordinate to heart and went back to work. In my book that represents endearing humility.
Always an adventure
Working for and with Jon Hill was always an adventure and an endless learning experience. Jon sent Charles Dorothy, Lawson Briggs and me on a tour of the Middle East in the early '70s. The pictures I took and my write-up of that life-changing experience appeared in either Tomorrow's World or The Good News, I don't remember which.
Jon provided me with opportunities for continuing education in the form of classes, courses and seminars, at AC and at outside colleges.
After what seemed like a lifetime of hard work and struggle, he also taught me that adults could still laugh and play.
In those days, Jon had quite a belly, and I was just beginning to grow one. Sometimes, when nobody was looking, we'd take a run at each other and bounce off each other's bellies. It was, of course, very unministerial, but it was fun.
We used to like to "do accents" on each other. I'd phone him up using an Irish accent, and he'd answer in kind. Then we'd switch to an Italian way of speaking. He could do a "Scandihoovian" accent, but I couldn't. German accents also produced a lot of laughs. Al Portune got in on those mit his "cheeze blintzes."
Quite a number of us, including Jon, were able to do HWA imitations. The names Bob Smith, Michael "Woody" Woodruff and a few others come to mind.
Can you imagine having four or five HWAs in a room at one time, all apostolically expostulating?
I had nicknames for Jon's and Audrey's kids: Jonathan the Ponathan (I used the same name on Richard Pinelli's son) and Kara Krunch.
I remember the Hills' kids and our kids having a great time up at Arrowhead one winter. We had snowball fights, rolled in the snow, hid behind trees and enjoyed good food and drink together in front of a roaring fireplace presided over by Jon.
Jon's first wife, Audrey, was a delightful woman with twinkling brown eyes. Jon and his children were deeply wounded when she died prematurely.
At his home in Pasadena, the one eventually occupied by the late Stan Rader, Jon had a great fireplace over which hung what I called his cannibal pot. It was a large black vessel on a hook that swung out over the hearth.
Jon and Audrey would make great stews and soups in that pot. After dinner we'd play pool or haul out the board games. Those were warm and wonderful years.
At one point Jon and Audrey had to give up their house for a while so famed pianist Vladimir Horowitz and his wife could occupy it. Jon was going to write about that in his stories. Now we'll have to wait on that one.
A dose of realism
Jon Hill was a realist. Unlike me, the naive idealist, he saw through the politics of HQ. He knew what made the "top" people tick. He had no tolerance for posturing, pretentiousness, phoniness and insincerity. He loathed the Pharisaic approach of those who took a legalistic tack on everything from mandated skirt lengths to the number of drinks one might indulge in on a social evening (the general rule was two).
Sometimes Jon broke the rules just to show how ludicrous some of them were. Some he broke out of weakness.
Two drinks in a social evening would be just warming up for Jon, and at some point he began to understand that he was an alcoholic.
Like many alcoholics in the WCG, he found no help in the church hierarchy, only condemnation. They honestly had no clue how to help an alcoholic. No one had studied the matter in depth, and only those who had been there had any sense of what to do--and they were not free to do it.
If I understood his intentions correctly, Jon intended to write about his alcoholism in the series of articles he'd begun for this newspaper. He hoped to help others.
I believe it was in 1978 that Jon Hill left Pasadena to return to Washington state. He continued in the employ of the church, writing and preaching. I remember "processing" a number of his articles in those years.
In early 1979--the Year of the Receiver--those in power in the hierarchy decided that all WCG employees must sign a type of loyalty oath. It was a purely political document based on the unnecessary war with the receiver.
Jon refused to sign it. In fact, many of us refused. It wasn't because we lacked loyalty that we refused; it was because it was unfair to ask employees to sign such a piece of rubbish. It was a form of blackmail: "Sign this or lose your job."
From the time he left the employ of the WCG to the day he died, Jon Hill struggled. He struggled successfully against the demon of alcoholism. For slightly more than 20 years he remained sober. He once said he wanted to live to be 87, because then he could say he'd lived longer sober than drunk.
Jon didn't make it. God had other plans. But during the last years of his life Jon and his recovering-alcoholic wife, Lin, did what they could to help others. For five years they ran a halfway house for alcoholics in Washington. They had to give that up because Lin herself was becoming so ill that she needed full-time care.
Lin had five potentially fatal diseases. On July 26, 2003, she succumbed to one of them.
Jon and a small number of close family members and friends held a "celebration of life" ceremony to honor Lin in her passing. Then Jon packed his meager belongings into his van and moved in with his son Jonathan and his wife, Bonnie (members of the United Church of God).
In his prime, David Jon Hill was an evangelist, an Ambassador College board and faculty member, a church pastor, an editor-writer, a vice president and publishing-division head and a friend and mentor to many, including myself. He helped make the WCG what it was at its peak. He was a major figure in the history of the church that so many of us once called our spiritual home.
At the end of his life he owned a 1990 van, an old Olympia portable typewriter and the clothes on his back. His income was $428 a month from social security. He was looking forward to becoming a great-grandfather in December.
On Aug. 23 Jon wrote Ken Westby, Robert Kuhn and me: "Word of many of my past acquaintances' deaths have come my way--I'm a survivor who will be 71 in September and a great-grandpa in December--if I live that long."
Jon made the birthday but not the birth.
Last week Jon and I had a long, satisfying phone conversation. We covered the waterfront, including many great memories. He talked about his friend Ray Crandall, whom he'd recently visited up in Sacramento. Jon wrote me, "Went to see Ray yesterday . . . Had a good visit . . . Ray is doing well considering what he's been through: six bypasses, four strokes . . ."
Jon spent the last months of his life caring for, and visiting, the sick. He didn't have much, but in the end he gave much.
The last thing I remember him saying to me on the phone was, "I love you, friend."
I choked up and spluttered back at him, "I love you too, Jon."
Jon's gone, and he took nothing with him but the lessons he learned and the character he built. He is the latest of a remarkable generation to pass from the scene.
I will always cherish the memories of my good friend Jon Hill. May he and his contemporaries rest peacefully until the Lord calls them to a second, never-ending, life.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God