He didn’t graduate from Simpson College, or teach a class. His name graces no buildings on campus.
But it’s difficult to overstate the contributions to Simpson College of Luther L. Hill Jr. of Des Moines, who died April 23 at the age of 90.
“I think Luther very clearly was the best friend Simpson ever had,” said Charles Rohm, an honorary life trustee of the College. “He did more for Simpson College than anybody I know. He was just terrific.”
Hill’s connection to Simpson spanned 52 years, beginning in 1955 when he was elected to the board of trustees at the age of 32. His relative youth raised eyebrows, but not for long.
“It was certainly a wonderful day for Simpson when he came to the board,” said College President John W. Byrd.
“He had a great passion for Simpson College, and he lived out that passion over several decades,” Byrd added. “He worked relentlessly to improve Simpson every day.”
One former college official often said he knew that Hill thought daily of how to improve Simpson, “because he called me every day.”
In fact, Hill had in recent months begun corresponding with Jay Simmons, who will take over as Simpson’s president this summer.
“Although I did not have an opportunity to meet Mr. Hill, I was eager to do so,” Simmons said. “His work with Justice Hugo Black and his reminiscences of his uncle, Lister Hill, both of whom are legends in the history of my home state of Alabama, held great interest for me. Mr. Hill’s contributions to the strengthening of Simpson College’s Board of Trustees, building Simpson’s programs and facilities, and advancing the development of Greater Des Moines were exemplary. Simpson College and the Des Moines area lost an outstanding leader and a great advocate this week.”
Hill held several positions on the Board of Trustees, including chairman from 1972 to 1979. But his influence was far greater than any title could suggest.
In “Beneath the Whispering Maples,” the history of Simpson, author Joseph W. Walt wrote that Hill “made Simpson a consuming hobby, almost an obsession, lavishing on it time, money and attention and, above all, wisdom that combined a happy mixture of visionary passion and sober judgment.”
Then-President William E. Kerstetter, who recruited Hill to the board, “recalled Hill’s election to the board as one of the most gratifying and productive actions of his entire administration,” Walt wrote.
Among other achievements, Hill is credited with saving College Hall; encouraging Amy Robertson to donate $10 million to Simpson, the largest single gift in the College’s history; and strengthening the ties between the board of trustees and the Des Moines business community.
In addition to the Amy Robertson Music Center, construction projects that occurred when Hill was a trustee include the Carver Science Center, McNeill Hall and the renovation of Mary Berry Hall.
“Luther Hill was possibly the most transformational person in Simpson’s history,” said Bob Lane, vice president for College Advancement. “The ripple effect from this one man is unbelievable.”
It’s not entirely clear what initially inspired Hill’s dedication to Simpson. His wife, Sara Sigler Carpenter, grew up in Indianola in what’s now known as the Sigler House, the home of the College president. But neither attended Simpson.
“He was a strong supporter of the liberal arts philosophy and the Simpson Experience concept,” said Jordan Hansell, treasurer of the trustees board and chief executive officer of NetJets. “He was driven to Simpson because it was so strong as a liberal arts college, and he supported it for years as a result.”
Board member Owen Newlin agreed: “He was very interested in the academic rigor of Simpson. He wanted to make sure it was the best it could be.”
Luther Hill was born in Des Moines. A World War II veteran, he received a B.A. from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and then graduated in 1950 with the highest academic honors from Harvard University. He served as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black.
After returning to Iowa, Hill in 1952 joined the legal staff of Equitable Life Insurance Company of Iowa, ultimately becoming the general counsel. He served as administrator of the Iowa Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Association since its inception in 1987.
His civic contributions were vast, including work for the Health Planning Council of Central Iowa, the Des Moines Metro Opera and the Hoyt Sherman Place Foundation. He also served on a group that helped formulate the design of the Des Moines skywalks system.
At Simpson, “he courted donors, recruited board members, advised presidents, employed students, supported the wrestling team and worked tirelessly for the college for decades,” said Michael Gartner, a Des Moines businessman, journalist and former Simpson board member.
In the 1980s, Gartner and Hill joined forces to save College Hall after the trustees had approved razing it.
“I was fairly active on the side to get rid of it,” recalled Bob Downing, a current board member. “Luther stood up strong and tall. He and Michael Gartner almost put their heads on the railroad tracks to stop it, and they almost single-handedly saved College Hall and raised the money to preserve it. They made the right decision.”
Hill also was a close friend and legal representative of Amy Robertson, whose $10 million gift to the college resulted in the music building that bears her name.
“He was probably more responsible for the Amy Robertson gift than anyone,” President Byrd said.
Hill also recruited board members from the Des Moines business community, including Fred Weitz, Fred Lorber and James W. Hubbell Jr., whose son, Fred, is the current board chair.
“He recruited some really terrific people,” Rohm said. “Simpson now has and has had for 30 years a fantastic board for a college of its size. I think you can credit a good bit of that to Luther Hill. He got it started and kept it going and some of the rest of us carried it on.”
Hill also was a staunch supporter of the Simpson wrestling program, and often could be seen at dual meets, including some this past season.
The Simpson board elected Hill an honorary life trustee in 2005.
“He was articulate and very intelligent,” Downing said, “You pretty well knew where you stood with Luther all the time. He was flexible, but he was firm, and he was normally right in what he was doing. In Luther’s mind, it was always for the good of Simpson, and you couldn’t find fault with him for that.”