Willie Hill Jr. came to the Fine Arts Center in 1999, and his retirement on Feb. 8 closes out a half-century career in arts education that launched just after he led the first Super Bowl Halftime Show in 1967. For an organization that’s 43 years old, Hill’s nearly 20 years at the university is undeniably impactful.
“Dr. Hill’s leadership of the Fine Arts Center over the past 20 years has been exemplary,” said provost John McCarthy. “What an extraordinary resource for our campus and community he has created. We will be hard pressed to recruit a Director who brings to the FAC, and to the campus as a whole, Dr. Hill’s artistic sense and sagacity.”
Before coming to UMass Amherst, Hill spent 11 years at the University of Colorado-Boulder as a music professor and assistant dean of the College of Music and 20 years in the Denver Public Schools in instrumental music education. His service as an educator—as a public school teacher, professor and more recently as an adjudicator or clinician—totals 51 years.
Hill is the second long-term director of the Fine Arts Center, following Frederick C. Tillis (1978-1998). Under Hill’s leadership, FAC staff members were empowered to strive, and as a result various programs thrived. “Strong leadership is much bigger than me. The vision, the direction, the enthusiasm, the visibility all has to be bigger than me,” Hill said. “The thing that will always move the Fine Arts Center forward is great staff, and we have great staff —they’re clear on the vision of where we’re headed.”
While at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Hill ran the Mile High Jazz Camp, a program with about 250 annual participants. His experience and vision empowered FAC staff to grow UMass Amherst’s Jazz in July. In recent years, under the direction of David Picchi and Yvonne Mendez, Jazz in July attendance has been the highest it’s ever been. “Willie has been very supportive of our efforts to grow the program,” Mendez said. “He was particularly interested in attracting new students to the program from across the country, and so his focus was to reach out to national jazz programs.”
One of the things Hill brought to the FAC was a commitment to community outreach. With Jazz in July, it’s evident by the number of local student participants and the fact the community shows up to performances on campus in the middle of summer. When the Global Arts program faced budget cuts in line with arts education across the board, Hill funded a study to demonstrate the impact of the program, and thus the lifetime impact of experiencing the arts. Today, each year more than 4,500 students from more than 100 schools in the region see a performance at the FAC and take that experience back to the classroom to explore concepts from lighting design to physics.
“Many people might view the director of the FAC as a purely administrative position. Willie certainly performs those duties, but he does so much more. I know first-hand that he serves as the center’s personal ambassador to the community,” said Terry Peters, Friends of the Fine Arts Center board member. “Through sheer force of his ebullient personality, he has connected and welcomed countless newcomers and long-time friends to celebrate and support the FAC.”
With his commitment to community also comes a commitment to consistently diverse programming. Because of this commitment, the Fine Arts Center has become a recurring home base for diverse artists like Ballet Hispanico, Zakir Hussain, Miguel Zenon and so many more.
“All the things that I’ve done as director of the Fine Arts Center have been to build community—to go out into areas that don’t necessarily have faith or trust or feel like this is a welcome environment,” Hill said. “I think we’re going in the right direction to help build this trust ... you have to make connections with these various communities and not let it be a ‘drive-by situation.’”
In 1967, as head drum major for Grambling College, now Grambling State University, Hill appeared in very first Super Bowl. At that pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement, he led the marching bands for Grambling, a historically black school, and the University of Arizona, predominantly white, together onto the most public field in the nation.
A half-century later, after nearly 1,600 performances and exhibitions at the FAC, Hill and his wife Beverly will step off into retirement, remaining primarily in western Massachusetts but looking forward to being snowbirds as well.
A search for his successor is underway with an appointment expected sometime this spring.