With apologies to those who have seen this on my Facebook post:
In 1991, when I was teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I was walking to a lecture via King David Street. It was a beautiful evening and I was enjoying the sunshine, gentle breeze and temperate atmosphere. I passed a couple walking the other direction. Something about them rang a bell. I turned back to look at them at the same moment the man pivoted in my direction. “Gary?” I said very tentatively. “Ken?” he answered, equally hesitant. We both nodded. It was Gary and CeCe Hill, who I hadn’t seen in years.
What are the odds that two Jewish boys from Lincoln, Nebraska would run into each other in the middle of Jerusalem? We exchanged phone numbers and made plans to get together for coffee. I hadn’t known Gary all that well since he was around ten years older than me, a time span that matters when you’re young. But we did connect on the streets of Jerusalem.
Gary was a carbon copy of his grandfather, Dan Hill. That matters to me because I believe my middle name, Dan, was bestowed to honor the senior Mr. Hill. The founder of Northwestern Iron and Metal Company in Lincoln, Dan Hill brought my family to Lincoln. His willingness to attract Holocaust survivors to Lincoln accounted for almost our entire social network. Mr. Hill not only employed my father but gave him the money to buy ship tickets that would enable my grandparents to escape Germany. Even though it was too late to get them out, Dan Hill’s kindness and generosity was never forgotten by my parents.
I later learned about Gary’s fascinating work on the airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He told me later about his work trying to teach democratic values to prison guards in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. I imagine that his commitment to social justice came from his grandfather who was, despite his wealth, a strong advocate for better working conditions. Dan Hill argued tirelessly for such progressive reforms as the eight-hour day, overtime pay, employee health insurance, workplace safety, government-funded pensions and other programs that became the basis for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Gary was justifiably proud of his grandfather’s legacy and honored it by his many charitable activities. When I look up mensch in a Yiddish-English dictionary, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gary’s picture.
Add to his legacy
When a person spends a lifetime contributing to the professional sector in ways that supersede what others have done, it is possible to not realize that the same individual also accomplished quiet things behind the scenes that also irreversibly made the world a better place.
So today in memory of my dear friend, Gary, I would like to point out some of his quieter contributions. Years ago, it was Gary who advised me to always keep change in my pocket. That way, if there was someone asking for tzedakah (monetary assistance) on the street, help could be given to some degree. He told me that whenever he traveled, he took rolls of quarters with him so he could do exactly that. He never walked by an individual in need with a closed hand and a closed pocket. He always walked by and stopped with an open heart an open pocket and an open hand.
As a result of his work in prisons, Gary understood the need for security especially at the synagogue. His work in that capacity went beyond the meetings, discussions, and his creation of a security handbook for the synagogue. He also quietly provided the first security system that the shul had. On Shabbatot and holidays Gary often stood at the back door to greet individuals. It was also his way of quietly screening individuals we didn’t know as they walked through the door. Years ago, there was one individual from the larger Lincoln community who for months seemed to be stalking me. Gary was quite aware of the content of that individual’s emails and pattern of trying to be alone with me, etc. On a Shabbat when there was to be a joyous aufruf at the synagogue, Gary quietly stood at the synagogue’s back door and met that individual who did happen to show up. Without embarrassing the individual, he asked the visitor questions to find out what he wanted. Recognizing that the individual had social and emotional needs, Gary provided him with his calling card and told him he would put him in touch with social service agencies that could help him. Although the individual never followed up on the offer, Gary did manage to show wisdom about security while still acting on his belief in doing tzedakah and acts of loving kindness.
Gary was a guardian angel to many who came to the U.S. as refugees and as new immigrants wanting to establish a life here. You might be aware that in order for an individual to immigrate to the U.S. there has to be proof that two individuals will act as sponsors for that person. When I told Gary that I was going to be a sponsor for my future son-in-law who wanted to join my daughter via a fiancee’s visa, Gary immediately said he wanted to be the second sponsor that was needed. He proceeded to fill out 12 pages of a form for the U.S. government that stated directly, that if a person is likely to become a public charge, the U.S. Government can consider the sponsor’s “ income and assets as available for the support of the intending immigrant.” In essence his quiet signature, made it possible for yet one more couple to reunite and for my son-in-law to eventually gain his U.S. citizenship. What was most amazing, was that Gary was not asked to do this, he came forward on his own accord knowing how important it was to my daughter. He said he never had any children and would like to do this for my daughter. It was a magnanimous but quiet action. He saw no reason to not do this since he had also sponsored many more immigrants quietly over the years.
Gary was also one to write notes to loved ones and friends to show that he was thinking of them. One such note was received by his friends and relatives in Israel in May 2021 when Hamas was sending rockets into Israel. It said,
“During these very difficult times in Israel, I am thinking of you and hope you, your family, friends and colleagues are safe. This is a week in Israel where Shavuot begins and Ramadan ends. It is my hope and prayer that the true spirit of both holidays replaces the hatred and fanaticism that currently infects some people and that peace prevails.” What was important about his gesture is that it was heartfelt and caring. It gave those of us who received it an opportunity to know that we were not forgotten.
Just as Gary often performed acts of loving-kindness without any public recognition for doing so, he also recognized that his life-long love, Cece, also did the same. Although she was involved in and accomplished in all forms of civic and Jewish organizational life, he recognized that she also supported him in all his public endeavors. As he said at her funeral, “She was the wind beneath my wings.” Their love was one for the books. They met as teenagers and adored one another throughout their lifetimes together. When Cece died, their family tradition of sponsoring large seders at their home also ceased…but anyone who ever had the honor of sitting at their table on Pesach knew what energy went into that evening with the creation of their own personally written and printed Haggadah.
Gary’s work in this very cemetery over the years was also done with no fanfare. Whether going out in all kinds of weather to stake a grave or helping with the mechanics of lowering a casket his services were always available if he was in town. He always reassured families that he would stay until the grave was closed completely before he would leave their loved one’s gravesite. He did this quietly, unassumingly, and with the knowledge that his presence would bring comfort to the mourner and show honor for the deceased.
These past several months have been very difficult for many of us because Gary chose to face the end of his life without the presence of or calls from friends and family. His actions were intentional and because he was an individual who respected others, his wishes were respected. I would like to acknowledge my thanks to Jane Peek, his neighbor, who did manage to visit him and share with him words of comfort during his time in Hospice.
Gary will indeed be missed, not only for his amazing contributions to the world through his work with the United Nations on Criminal Justice, but also for the quiet times that showed care and concern for those around him. He taught so many of us about tzedakah and living a life that reflected the values of social justice. He showed us that goodness does not need bright lights and a fanfare to make a difference.
Gary, lech b’shalom. Go in peace. May your soul be bound up in the bond of life and may we always know how blessed we were to have considered you as our friend. May your body know rest and your soul continue to soar.