WASHINGTON – As Grant Hill took to the podium in the main concert hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he thought of all the great moments he’d had at the facility where his mother, Janet Hill, had served on the board of trustees .
“He absolutely loved this place,” Grant Hill said. “I’ve been here many times with her for different shows. This is my first time here without her.
It was, for people in Janet Hill’s orbit, difficult to go through a phase of life without her after her death in August from brain cancer. It was fitting that a place, the Kennedy Center, where she devoted much of her time and her experience of her, served as the setting for a memorial service in her honor.
People from various stages of his life, from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was a classmate at Wellesley College, to leaders and presidents of major foundations and universities to NBA representatives, including commissioner Adam Silver, filled in a good portion of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to commemorate Janet Hill.
Yes, she was the wife of Calvin Hill, the great NFL and Super Bowl champion.
Yes, she was the mother of Grant Hill, the NBA great with Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame membership.
But it was much more in its 74 years of life.
He was a devoted mentor.
She was a well-respected business executive whose brilliance earned her positions on the boards of some of the nation’s leading corporations.
And she was a loyal friend and confidant to 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 holds up the trophy, and she comes over and hugs me.” and comforts me. She was just a wonderful woman.
Andrew Young, who served as US Ambassador to the United Nations and was later elected mayor of Atlanta, told the audience how he formed a bond with Janet Hill through their fathers’ relationship.
“They had a mobile dental clinic and they would go around the state of Louisiana and fix people’s teeth for free,” Young said.
Alan Schwartz, executive chairman of Guggenheim Partners, shared the eye-opening meeting he had with Hill while both served on Duke University’s board of trustees.
“During 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 recalled. “As she explained the difference, I sat there and said, ‘I need to know 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 lead vocals.
Clinton and Hill enrolled at Wellesley the same year (1965). “I met one of the smartest, kindest, most astute, extraordinary women I’ve ever known,” Clinton said.
When Clinton won election as president of college government in 1968, Hill was elected chief justice 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 to discuss what we should do and how we should try to move forward.”
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This 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 earned a master’s degree in mathematics education in 1972.
What followed was a decorated career as a math teacher at the college, junior college, and college levels. She accepted the role of special assistant to the nation’s first black secretary of the military, Clifford Alexander, in 1978.
Hill later launched a consulting firm with Alexander and served on the boards of numerous companies, including the Carlyle Group, Houghton Mifflin and the Kennedy Center. Since his tenure on Duke’s board of directors ended in 2021, Grant Hill was announced as a new member.
“As we were going through orientation, I had to let everyone know that I’m Janet Hill’s son, I’m not Janet,” Grant Hill said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Let’s lower those expectations.”
While Grant Hill shared that he’s talked to his mom every day since he can remember, he recalled dinner conversations between the two that were interrupted every night at 7 when the two tested their knowledge while watching Family Feud.
The two often argued about one day being on the show, an impossibility since all three – Grant, Janet, and Calvin – were just kids. For Family Feud, a family of five is required to compete.
“I’d ask mom, ‘why didn’t you and dad have more kids?’ He said. “She said ’11 pounds, 8 ounces.’ “
Years later, the two would get their wish, as the NBA took over Family Feud with players competing against their moms.
“We were facing each other and had our hands ready for the buzzer,” he recalled. “We’re looking at each other and she’s like, ‘Do you believe it?’ “
Grant Hill closed the ceremony with words that made his mother special.
“She was a force of nature, she was a force for good, an amazing woman, an amazing friend and an amazing mother,” she said. “I miss her. I love her. And, by the grace of God, I live from day to day to see her again.”
Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His wish list includes being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.