Remembering Mr. Hill

A partial stack—eight volumes, to be precise—of anthologies of Gene Hill’s peerless work. Find it, buy it, read it. Then read it again. You’ll thank us.

by David E. Petzal

I was going to begin by saying I knew Gene Hill from 1970 until 1997, but this would not be true. More accurately, I was friends with him for those years, but I didn’t really know him. No one did.

Friends who were close to him in age called him “Hilly,” but I addressed him as “Mr. Hill.” This was done out of respect. He addressed me as “David, my lad,” as in “David, my lad, if you ever get a shotgun that patterns exactly the way it should, never sell it, or lose it in a divorce. Shoot it until it falls apart in your hands.”

Gene enlisted in the army at 17 and served on Okinawa, which meant he was witness to, and probably a participant in, some of the most frightful carnage of World War II. After the war, he graduated from Harvard and became an advertising copywriter. He was good at the ad game, and was promoted to account executive, which meant he was handsomely remunerated and fed a constant diet of fear, worry, and aggravation.

In the early 1970s, at the precise time when a couple of his big accounts were looking to go elsewhere, he got the chance to go on safari for free. Gene had to choose whether to tend to business and save the accounts and his job, or go to Africa. He chose the safari, and returned to find his office furniture moved out into the hall.

Gene took the hint and resigned to take up his true calling, which had been waiting in the wings. He had, for several years, been writing a column for Guns & Ammo magazine, and received much acclaim for it. He was immediately snapped up by Sports Afield, which hired him as Executive Editor with orders to go hunt and fish and write about it. He did this with distinction, and was hired in 1977 by Field & Stream as an Associate Editor to do the same thing in a column called “Hill Country,” which brought him to greatness.

Gene presented himself as a loveable bumbler in order to connect with his readers. In real life he was anything but. He had a trophy room in his house, and there was more silver in it than there is in Tiffany’s on any given day. He was a shotgunner, not a rifleman, and did his best work at trap and box birds.

Throughout his career, Gene wrote only one thing: short essays on hunting, fishing, friends, dogs, nature, and loss. The essays hit a nerve. This was summed up by a young man who approached him at a field trial and said: “Mr. Hill, you don’t know me, but I wanted to thank you for saying everything I’ve felt, but never had the words for.”

Gene could be wet-yourself funny, but there was a strong streak of melancholy in his work, and he wrote what is the saddest of all short stories not only about dogs, but about anything:  It was called “Old Tom.” It’s the tale of an elderly man who has to put his old dog down, and does, and I once made the mistake of choosing to read it at a writing seminar at which I was a speaker. The point I wanted to make was that the more intense the emotion, the more restrained the writer needs to be. When I finished reading it (which I did with great difficulty because someone seemed to have shoved a cannonball down my throat) I looked up and was faced with a roomful of mature adults with tears streaming down their cheeks. 

Like a great many men of that generation, he was a serious drinker, and added to his legend at ‘21’ Club, a high-class Manhattan saloon much in favor among media movers and shakers. Gene got passing-out drunk and made it as far as the awning that led from 21’s door to the street. There he blacked out, but rather than crumpling in a heap, he went rigid, fell at the position of attention, and landed precisely on his nose. The nose did not sustain much damage, as I think it had already been broken, and the 21 staff hauled him back inside and cleaned up the blood. Mr. Hill was unscathed, and the rumor that he had abilities denied to normal people gained force. After all, who can pass out like a tree falling?

On one occasion, he and a friend met in front of Abercrombie & Fitch (the original store on Madison Avenue and 45th street) so Gene could pay off a bet he made with a friend, whom I shall call Hap, because that was his name. To quote Gene: “I had just passed a wad of bills to Hap when a terrific looking girl happened by, saw the money, and said ‘That’s just about the price of a really good b.j.’ Then she grabbed the cash, took Hap by his tie, and led him off with a huge grin on his face.”

During my life, I’ve known a very few people who could cause people to smile just by showing up. Gene was one of them, and perhaps the best of them. I think that’s how he’d like to be remembered.

Dave Petzal prizes several books that were autographed and given to him by Gene Hill. One inscription reads, To Dave Petzal, with hopes they find a cure.”