You didn’t have to be a palm reader to see Johnnie Hill’s life in his hands. They grew calloused picking cotton in Alabama.
After migrating North, he landed a job at Wisconsin Steel, where a machine gobbled up parts of two fingers. Drafted into the service during the Korean War, he still managed to fire his weapon.
At different times, he owned or co-owned car washes, gas stations, laundromats, dry cleaners, apartment buildings and liquor and convenience stores, for which he did most of the plumbing, carpentry and heating and air-conditioning repairs himself, said his daughter, Brunetta Hill-Corley.
Mr. Hill’s handshake seemed as hard as the bowling balls at Skyway Bowl and New Halsted Bowl, two more businesses he bought and operated as he worked to help his three children graduate college and get advanced degrees.
He was the first African-American proprietor of two Chicago bowling alleys, according to Mattie Miller, secretary of the Chicago Bowling Senate, an affiliate of the National Bowling Association, a black bowlers’ organization.
While other people of color have bought and run bowling alleys, Mr. Hill was believed to be the city’s only current African-American owner, according to Bill Duff, executive director of the Chicagoland and Illinois State Bowling Proprietors’ Association.
In Chicago, Mr. Hill found a political patron in Ald. Claude W.B. Holman (4th), an ally of Mayor Richard J. Daley and U.S. Rep. William L. Dawson, a black political powerhouse. That led to jobs for Mr. Hill as a court bailiff and as a license examiner with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. He rose to high posts in the city water department and became a top aide to Holman’s successor, Ald. Timothy C. Evans, who would become Cook County’s chief judge.
At one point, Mr. Hill worked the early shift at the DMV, then evenings at the 4th ward aldermanic office.
“He was a happy man, working,” his daughter said. “He used to say, ‘When I leave this world, I’m gonna go out working.’ ”
It took pancreatic cancer to slow Mr. Hill. He died Aug. 7 in hospice care at Franciscan St. James Health center in Chicago Heights. He was 84.
He was the seventh of nine children born to Viola and Waverly Hill in Faunsdale, Alabama, where his moonshiner father made “white lightning” from sugar cane, according to Mr. Hill’s daughter and his wife of 60 years, Mary “Frances” Hill.
He and Frances were school chums in Faunsdale. After their first date, he said he knew, “I’m going to marry that girl.”
While courting, he was drafted into the Army and fought in Korea, where “he got frostbit feet” and lost some hearing, according to his wife.
Johnnie Hill. Family photo.
Returning stateside, Mr. Hill married Frances in Alabama in 1955. The newlyweds moved to Chicago, where his aunt, also named Brunetta, was the wife of William E. Peterson, a lawyer who became a judge.
Starting in 1955, Mr. Hill worked for nearly 20 years for Wisconsin Steel. His first government job, as a license examiner at the DMV, came in the 1970s.
The Hills raised their children at 94th and Eberhart.
He never bowled. Still, “He said, ‘Frances, I’m buying a bowling alley because you love bowling,’ ” his wife recalled.
In 2000, Mr. Hill bought the New Halsted Bowl, 12345 S. Halsted. Nine years later, he bought the Skyway, 9915 S. Torrence.
All of his jobs went toward one goal: “To make certain all of his children could get a marvelous education,” said Evans.
The Hill family intends to keep Skyway for the next generation. The sale of New Halsted Bowl was being finalized before his death.
Fred Moore, who’s buying and plans to keep operating New Halsted Bowl, says of Mr. Hill: “He opened up doors of opportunity. I’m a prime example.”
Mr. Hill couldn’t work any longer when he visited Skyway one last time, two weeks before he died.
“Everything was spic-and-span,” Brunetta Hill-Corley said. “He went home knowing we believe in a clean business, and he didn’t have to worry about it.”
His final request involved two of his favorite things — poker and pool — and betting on his chances on those once he got to heaven, his wife said. “He said, ‘Frances, when I go ‘home,’ make sure you put 10 dollars in my pocket so I can be ready when I get up there.’ ”
His family also buried him with copies of three favorite movies: “How the West was Won,” “The Ten Commandments” and “King of Kings.”
Mr. Hill, who helped pay for his grandchildren’s college educations, would joke, “I earned that [law] degree” for one. So his daughter tucked the diploma into his casket, too.
He is also survived by another daughter, Marilyn Hill; a son, Edward; two sisters, Bessie May and Viola Daniels; and six grandchildren. Services have been held. The repast was at Skyway Bowl.
Contributing: Dale Bowman