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‘She was a force of nature’: Janet Hill remembered as a leading voice, level-headed and a loving mother

Hill’s memorial in Washington drew Hillary Clinton, Chris Webber, Andrew Young among others to honor her legacy

WASHINGTON — As Grant Hill stepped to the podium in the main concert hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he thought about all the great moments he experienced in the facility where his mother, Janet Hill, had served on the board of trustees.

“She absolutely loved this place,” Grant Hill said. “I’ve been here many times with her for different performances. This is my first time here without her.”

It has been, for the people in Janet Hill’s orbit, difficult to transition into a phase of life without her following her death in August of brain cancer. It was fitting that the Kennedy Center, where she devoted a great deal of her time and expertise, served as a setting for a memorial service in her honor.

People from various stages of her life — including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and former U.S. ambassador Andrew Young — filled a good portion of the Kennedy Center concert hall to remember Janet Hill.

Yes, she was the wife of Calvin Hill, the NFL great and Super Bowl champion.

Yes, she was the mother of Grant Hill, the NBA great with membership in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

But she was considerably more than that in her 74 years of life. 

She was a devoted mentor. 

She was a highly respected business executive whose brilliance earned her positions on the boards of some of the nation’s top corporations.

And she was a loyal friend and confidant to the people who entered her orbit.

“We talked a lot, even more than Grant would ever know,” said Chris Webber, who has known the Hill family since he was a teenager. When his team, Michigan, lost to Grant Hill’s team, Duke, in the 1992 national championship game, he said, “I’m sitting there sobbing while Grant is holding the trophy, and she comes over and hugs me and consoles me. She was just a wonderful woman.”

From left to right: Janet Hill with 15-month-old Grant Hill and her husband, Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill, on Dec. 24, 1973, in Dallas.

Greg Smith/AP Photo

“Even though she was often the only woman in the room, or the only African American in the room, Janet was always one of the leading voices.” — Alan Schwartz

Young, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and was later elected mayor of Atlanta, told the audience about how he formed a bond with Janet Hill through the relationship of their fathers.

“They had a mobile dental clinic and drove around the state of Louisiana and fixed the teeth of people for free,” Young said.  

Alan Schwartz, the executive chairman of Guggenheim Partners, shared the enlightening encounter he had with Hill as both served on the board of trustees at Duke University.

“My first year on the board we were talking about diversity initiatives and Janet, sitting next to me, said ‘diversity is fine, but inclusion is what we need,’ ” Schwartz remembered. “As she explained the difference, I sat there and said, ‘I need to learn more about this.’ Even though she was often the only woman in the room, or the only African American in the room, Janet was always one of the leading voices.”

Clinton and Hill enrolled at Wellesley College the same year (1965). “I met one of the smartest, kindest, shrewdest and most remarkable women I’d ever known,” Clinton said.

At the time Clinton won the election as president of the college government in 1968, Hill was elected as chief judge of the student court. “Several things happened in 1968, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and war protests on campus,” Clinton said. “While the administration was overwhelmed by what was happening, Janet was the most level-headed person in any room when we were called in to discuss what we should be doing and how we should try to move forward.”

That marked the early stages of a career where people would benefit from Hill’s advice. She graduated from Wellesley with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1969 and attended the University of Chicago Graduate School, where she received a master’s degree in teaching mathematics in 1972.

What followed was a decorated career as a math teacher at the college, junior college and college levels. She accepted the role as the special assistant to the nation’s first Black secretary of the army, Clifford Alexander, in 1978.

Hill later launched a consulting firm with Alexander and served on boards of numerous corporations, including the Carlyle Group, Houghton Mifflin and the Kennedy Center. As her role on Duke’s board of trustees ended in 2021, Grant Hill was announced as a new member.

“As we were going through orientation I had to let everyone know I’m the son of Janet Hill, I’m not Janet,” Grant Hill said, drawing laughs from the audience. “Let’s lower those expectations.”

Janet Hill at a Duke Women’s Weekend Keynote Luncheon at the Durham Convention Center’s Grand Ballroom.

Duke University

As Grant Hill shared that he spoke to his mother every day from as early as he can remember, he recalled the dinner conversations between the two that were interrupted each night at 7 o’clock when the two would test their knowledge while watching Family Feud.

The two would often discuss one day being on the show, an impossibility since all three — Grant, Janet and Calvin — were only children. For Family Feud, a family of five is needed to compete.

“I’d ask mom, ‘why didn’t you and dad have more children?’ ” he said. “She would say ‘11 pounds, 8 ounces.’ ”

Years later, the two would realize their wish, as the NBA took over Family Feud with players competing against their moms.

“We were across from each other and we had our hands ready for the buzzer,” he recalled. “We’re looking at each other and she said, ‘can you believe this?’ ”

Grant Hill closed the ceremony with words that made his mother special.

“She was a force of nature, she was a force for good, a remarkable woman, remarkable friend and a remarkable mother,” he said. “I miss her. I love her. And, by the grace of God, I live for the day to see her again.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.