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CHARLESTON, W.Va. – In the fall of 1963, the management of the Kopperston No. 1 coal mine decided they no longer needed Paul Hill Sr.
He had lost jobs before. But the veteran miner had worked at the Wyoming County site long enough to allow for the hope of a little job security. Now that security was gone, and he was left with a pregnant wife, five children and few options.
With nowhere else to go, Hill returned his family to their farm in Lincoln County. There was no plumbing, little money and just enough food to get by. It was then that Hill made a promise to himself: He would get an education and build a better life.
His fifth child, Paul Jr., remembers it well.
“He vowed at that point he would not be a coal miner anymore,” Hill said. “He would not go back to the mines.”
Watching his father use night classes at the local high school to get a job in Richwood with the state Department of Natural Resources, Hill saw how knowledge could change someone’s life. It made the little kid who loved to play with insects and bring snakes into the house his father built want to strive for something more.
Almost 50 years later, he has earned three scientific degrees, chaired a national board at the behest of the president and recently earned the top spot at a West Virginia commission devoted to higher education.
Paul Hill Jr. never dreamed he would attain such success, and it wasn’t easy. But he’s confident students from similar backgrounds are capable of as much or more.
He was born in 1954 in Madison, the county seat of Boone County. The family lived on a farm in Lincoln County at the time but later moved to the coal camp as Hill entered elementary school. They returned to the farm as Hill entered fourth grade and stayed there for the next seven years.
“Much of life, looking back, was pretty difficult,” Hill said. “We didn’t have a lot, but we didn’t know we didn’t have a lot, so it was fine.”
In both communities, Hill said most people eked out a living by mining coal or farming. The only people who left were teachers, and they would return after receiving a college degree. They were generally the only community members with higher education.
In his family, only an aunt had attended college, and she became a teacher. His father had a high school diploma. His mother had dropped out of school in eighth grade.
Although his family encouraged education, the prospect of studying science was still a little daunting. “Becoming a scientist was something of a novel idea back then,” Hill said with a laugh. When he wasn’t tending corn, tobacco or other crops, Hill was creating experiments.
His favorite piece of equipment was the carbide lamp his father used in the mines. Pellets in the lamp produced a gas, which the miners would light to illuminate their work, Hill said. However, the pellets had more exciting uses for a little boy: put in a container, Hill figured out a way to make them explode. “I blew up cans and bottles with things like that,” Hill said, adding that he had to keep such experiments a secret from his parents.
With few other resources at home or school, Hill said the outdoors served as his laboratory. He wasn’t able to take chemistry or biology classes until the family moved to Richwood for his father’s new job, he said. The larger school there opened up new possibilities for Hill and allowed him to meet a mentor: his high school chemistry teacher, who made classes fun.
Succeeding in high school and enjoying his class work convinced Hill he needed to further his education. The problem was figuring out how to pay for it.
Challenge of college
Hill applied to both West Virginia University and Marshall University, but Marshall’s financial aid package made his decision easier. However, once he got to Huntington, he was still barely getting by. Things got so bad during his first year that he questioned whether he had made the right choice.
“I remember when I was a freshman talking about perhaps dropping out of college,” he admitted. “For me, the discouragement was financial, and adjusting to college life.”
He pushed through to the summer, when he went to work for a relative at a manufacturing plant in Cleveland. The family member told him that even a few years of college would help him get him a better job and he should stick with his education. “That was a real turning point for me, to just not give up on my own dreams,” Hill said.
Eventually, school started going better for Hill. But that success led to some challenges when he returned home. Most of his friends and family were already in the workforce. He recalls that some chided him for going to school while they were earning money.
In particular, he remembers a neighbor who always asked why he didn’t just go get one of the abundant high-paying jobs in the mines. Hill remembers him frequently asking, “What are you going to do with all that education?” “My response was always, ‘Because I wanted to do something different,’ ” Hill said. “I wanted more.”
That desire and the pursuit of higher education led Hill away from the community. He could still walk the streets of Madison or Richwood and relate to the people he met. But he became more aware of the world beyond. “Education changes you,” Hill said. “Education in that way is good, as long as you keep it in perspective how you got there.”
A White House call
Never did Hill recall his background so acutely as the day he got a call from the White House.
It was the mid 1990s, and by this time Hill had earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. He was working as the president of the National Institute for Chemical Studies, and President Bill Clinton wanted to create a chemical safety board. The person on the phone told Hill the president had reviewed his resume over the weekend and wanted him to chair the board.
“I guess I felt myself, at that time, say, ‘There are 300 million people in this country, and they called me?’ ” Hill said, shaking his head. “How did this happen that they called me?”
As someone who doesn’t remember taking family vacations as a kid, spending his summers tending crops to make sure he and his brothers and sisters could eat, Hill said the experience is still a little unbelievable. It’s one of the many he’s been able to enjoy as an educated man.
He spent three months on a Coast Guard icebreaker in Alaska doing oil spill research. He worked in a Logan laboratory dedicated to bringing clean drinking water to rural areas.
And now he’s in charge of helping 95,000 West Virginia students achieve their higher education goals.
Hill had moved up through the ranks of the Higher Education Policy Commission and was serving as vice chancellor when Chancellor Brian Noland left in January for another job. Hill stepped into the post on an interim basis. After a nationwide search, he was named to the permanent post in May.
College isn’t for everyone, Hill said. None of his brothers or sisters went, and three instead opted to work for coal companies. There’s nothing wrong with that, he said.
For Hill, though, education helped him escape the occupation that caused his father’s lungs to slowly deteriorate. Hill’s father died last year.
“There were probably many times when I could have gone right instead of left and be in a very different situation,” Hill said. “For me to look back on it, it’s pretty fascinating that each situation led to the next one.”
College put Hill in a situation to meet his longtime wife, Nancy, who attended Marshall the same time as he did. They saw their daughter, Summer, graduate from the same school last year.
Education gave the son of a coal miner and full-time mom a shot at a richer, fuller life. A life that Hill thinks is within the reach of any West Virginian. “There are some cultural barriers, there’s this reluctance . . . in some communities of going to college, and whether or not there are opportunities out there,” Hill said. “I think I’m an example of what you can achieve when you set your mind to it.”
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