Brother James L. Hills (AC, Maryland ’54) was fondly referred to as one of the “grand old men of Sigma Pi.” Jim served as the second Executive Secretary of Sigma Pi Fraternity from July, 1963 to August, 1971. In the summer of 1963, the fraternity moved its headquarters from Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Shadowwood Memorial Headquarters, near Vincennes, Indiana. Judge Curtis Shake, as President of the Vincennes University board, had persuaded the University to give the Shadowwood estate to Sigma Pi for use as its national Executive Office. Harold Jacobsen, who had been the fraternity’s first Executive Secretary, retired after 36 years of service, and decided not to move with the fraternity to Shadowwood. Brother Hills, who had worked alongside Jacobsen as the fraternity’s first “field representative,” was the natural choice to move back home and lead the fraternity.
In 1965, Brother Hills and Judge Shake were instrumental in re-establishing the fraternity’s Alpha Chapter at Vincennes University, which was then a two-year college. At that time, the NIC prohibited its members from establishing chapters at two year schools. But Judge Shake successfully petitioned the NIC for special dispensation and Alpha Chapter was re-chartered after being dormant for 55 years. During Brother Hill’s 8-year tenure as Executive Secretary, the fraternity expanded rapidly, adding more than 40 new chapters.
Brother Hills never moved away from Vincennes. After leaving the fraternity’s service in 1971, he established a successful insurance business that he operated for more than 30 years. Jim’s wife, Lorraine, passed away in 1996. Jim and Lorraine had three children, Margaret, Michael and Carolyn, and altogether, Jim has eight grandchildren.
In 2000, the Fraternity presented Brother Hills with the Founders’ Award, the fraternity’s highest honor, at the 45th Biennial Convocation in Phoenix.
Jim passed away on Monday, February 3, 2014. Upon his death, Jim was still the President of Alpha Chapter housing corporation, and visited the chapter house almost daily when the brothers were in school.
On June 13, 2013, Executive Director Michael Ayalon (EO, Buffalo ‘97) and PGS John Kitch (H, Purdue ‘73) visited Brother Jim Hills at a hospital in Vincennes, Indiana, where he was recuperating from cancer surgery. They were joined by brother Alan Hutchens (A, Vincennes ’69) who serves as vice-president of Alpha Chapter housing corporation. Ayalon recorded the visit, and the transcript appears below.
Kitch: Which of the four founders did you know?
Hills: Patterson. He lived right across the street. He was kooky. An attorney and banker. His wife Marion was a handful. She would always bring her dogs over and visit us. Patterson was a good man.
Ayalon: He never really intended for Sigma Pi to get as big as it did, right?
Hills: One of the first times I ever met him was at Salt Lake City. Bald headed guy got up, he was so funny, he said “I never thought I was ever going to be the beginning of this wonderful fraternity” and then sat down.
Ayalon: They never intended it to be what it was. It just happened.
Kitch: And then they got taken in by that character from Ohio!
Hills: Oh yeah. He was going to start Alpha Chapter at William and Mary. PGS Frank Fryburg (Q, Penn State ‘49) was a young man back then, I was younger. I’ll never forget those days. It made me so loyal to our Fraternity. I made mistakes, oh did I make mistakes. All those cards I’m getting from past Grand Sages, all those telephone calls, even Larry Rovira [called], he said “I never hated Alpha Chapter or you, I just wanted to give you a hard time.”
Ayalon: Is there anybody you want me to reach out to, is there anyone you want to talk to?
Hills: No, I talked with [many] people. They all say, “Hills, come off that bed!” Let me tell you about me. I broke my hip last year [but] when you saw me in Texas [the San Antonio Convocation], I was completely mended. The surgeon said you need more therapy. So I did, I started [physical] therapy. Four weeks later, the young physical therapist said you should go back to your doctor. You have jaundice in your eyes. So I did. The next thing I knew, I ended up in the hospital and [I had surgery.] They went in to find out why I was jaundiced. Well, [a tumor] on the pancreas was pushing against the liver, but the liver is alright. So they moved that away from it and the jaundice disappeared and the pain disappeared. They had to go in and find out what [the tumor on] the pancreas was. Well, it turns out there is cancer there. But it is controllable with the chemotherapy. The cancer doctor is seeing me and my family on Monday and that’s when they’ll know. My doctor says they caught it at the right time – we think. At [age] 85 we want to make the cancer climb the stairs instead of going straight up my body. I’ve got 8 grandchildren, I’ve seen them all grow up. I hope it doesn’t spread anymore. I know I have cancer but it’s not that bad. It does not hurt, there is no pain. I’ve lost a lot of weight because I haven’t been eating right. One thing will lead to another. I can’t drink right now that’s the only trouble
Kitch: We were going to bring you some Grand Marnier…. [laughter]
Hills: [Laughing] I’d like to be at this summer’s thing [SPU], but I’ve got father’s day and my kids will come and live in my house, a full house, they take care of it, and I said pay some of the bills that come in. That’s the story. What keeps the [Alpha] chapter going is alumni, strong alumni. We got all these alumni, but about 6 of us are the ones that do all the damn work!
Kitch: A lot of people graduate from here and don’t stay. I’ve gotthe same problem.
Ayalon: What can I do to help out the chapter?
Hills: Just showing up. Show up sometime when they’re all there.
Ayalon: I will. Maybe for Founder’s Day.
Hills: This helps a lot too. Especially with men like this [pointing to Alan]. I’m sure he feels all by himself.Now with me being sick he’s all by himself.
Ayalon: I’ll come back.
Hills: The road goes on.
Ayalon: What else do I have to see in Vincennes?
Hills: Drive by Shadowwood. Patterson’s home is gone, if you get a picture of it you’ll see where our original house was. Show him where the University was, out by the post office. It was all there, slowly but surely, thanks to Curtis Shake we got it moved over there. They can show you where the original initiates were buried, that would be a good project too because the stones are falling apart. They won’t let you take off the original, but they’ll put a new stone right by it. One thing about Alpha chapter: you can come here and all these pledges have gone through the whole thing. They have to know. They know more about our history. I had a guy from Eastern Illinois. He said, “I wish we made our pledges come over here, it’s not that far, to see our history, the clock tower.” He’s the one that fought me on the clock tower! [pointing at John Kitch]
Kitch: I didn’t fight you on it – we didn’t have any money!
Hills: That’s right. His theory was, and he was probably right, why should we pick the chapter. Why don’t we build it on Purdue’s campus? My theory was we were the mother chapter.
Kitch: I was just pulling your chain a little bit on that one.
Hills: Oh, you pulled it alright.
Kitch: It’s still $100? [to engrave a brick]
Ayalon: Oh yes.
Kitch: I think the clock tower is a wonderful thing. When the chapters come here, and they see that, and the damn thing “bongs, bongs,” don’t get caught inside it when it “bongs.”
Ayalon: We also have a copy of that Road Rally. [locations of Sigma Pi sites to see in Vincennes]
Hills: That tells you all about it. Except the one that’s the old man’s house. He’s not there today.
Kitch: There was the grave site of the first two initiates, but then there was another grave site on there.
Hills: That’s Shake’s grave. He loved Jack Daniels. We take [the Alpha brothers] up after dark, we [notify] the cemetery people and the police. We have the original badge on the front of the house, we put lights in it. We take it out and lay it on the ground next to Shake’s grave and turn it on. Everybody tells about what they know about Shake, what he meant. Everyone tells us why they joined Sigma Pi, and then they sing the Fireside Song. Then we get a bottle of Jack Daniels and pour it on the grave.
Ayalon: Tell us about Curtis Shake.
Hills: Curtis Shake was appointed by the President to investigate something in New Jersey. That’s why he was in New Jersey at that time when Jake was in charge. I had met him years before. He was a wellspoken person, but he also could come down to the level of anybody he talked to. If the history wasn’t there, he created the history. He was Supreme Court Justice of the State of Indiana, Nuremburg trials was something else. And you know [the Executive Office] got his robes.
Ayalon: Yes, it’s in our museum.
Hills: Byron Lewis was a grumpy old man, cigar smoking, he was something else. Byron and Curtis would fight all the time. Curtis would interrupt him and say “Byron, you got the facts messed up.” They knew each other for years. Byron got where he couldn’t walk, couldn’t drive anymore. Shake would call him up and say “come on, were going up to Shadowwood.” Byron would say “ahhh, I don’t trust you driving.” Dad was involved there. My Dad, Byron Lewis, and Curtis Shake were good friends. Dad was a historian, he dug into Curtis Shake’s binders. Now we got computers and all that stuff. There is a lot of information in those old books. We’d go out to eat, Dad, Mom, and Shake. Oh, brings back memories. Lewis spilled food, he always wore dark suits and vests and all that stuff. We would go out to restaurants in Vincennes, Byron would be sitting there spilling food all down the front. Curtis would say, “Byron, you’re embarrassing me.” That’s what they were, two old tyrants who loved Sigma Pi.
Hutchens: In my pledge class I was President, I had to go meet Curtis Shake and I had to go meet Byron Lewis. So, I had to go down to his office and I talked to him for a while. He gave me a pen that Lyndon Johnson used to sign a law. Of course, at that age I used it and threw it away. I remember going into Byron’s house, it was unbelievable because the whole front porch was stacks of newspapers. He had a large front porch with just a pathway to get to the front door.
Hills: He was a historian. I have Byron’s, in his own handwriting, a notebook that thick about the correct information about Alpha chapter and when it was created according to him. I got it put away. Byron writes that the first convocation was on 4th Street in Vincennes, not in Columbus, Ohio. It was the way they classified our Convocations. It’s very interesting. He wrote our ritual based on Kappa’s interpretation. Those guys used to argue.
Ayalon: So, we talked about Patterson, we talked about Shake, we talked about Byron R. Lewis. Who else is important?
Ayalon: Nahhhh…. What should I do?
Hills: He’s not going to like this [pointing at Kitch]. I think we should have never have moved down to his home in Tennessee. We should have stayed.
Ayalon: Do you want [the fraternity] to come back to Vincennes?
Hills: Nah, I agree with getting out of Vincennes.
Ayalon: Go to Indianapolis?
Hills: Yes, it’s really the center of [the Greek World] as far as I’m concerned. Shadowwood was in the wrong place. I don’t know the answer. I know it would be hard on you. The more qualified people you get on the council, making those decisions, and do what you’ve done.
Ayalon: You were one of the original consultants, right?
Hills: I was Jake’s right hand man. Jake and I put in more good chapters like Iowa State and they stuck. We would not put in a chapter in those days without men like this guy behind every chapter. That’s your idea in putting in older people, I read you like a book.
Ayalon: Tell me about Jake.
Hills: Harold Jacobsen, and my father, and my mother were close friends. Jake went to Kenyan, my father went to Ohio State, and my mother went to Ohio University. Lambda Chapter, Epsilon Chapter, and Gamma Chapter would get together every spring. Jake brought my mother who was homecoming queen at Ohio University. Harold Jacobsen had hair then like you and I. One thing led to another. Dad took mom away from Jake, just one of those teenage things. I became good friends with Jake and his first wife, and I got to know the family. Then I got hired as his first full time field secretary which my dad supplemented to get it going. That’s how I was branded with Sigma Pi. My mother was a Pi Phi. It was through the Greek World, they don’t do that anymore I don’t think. Jake and I were very good friends. I went to Jake’s funeral out in Colorado where he died, but those days are gone.
Ayalon: So, why did you move from New Jersey to Vincennes?
Hills: They told me that if I moved to Vincennes, they wanted to experiment with the idea that I would eventually replace Harold Jacobsen. I was to work with Curtis Shake to get the black snakes out of the basement, getting the big old furnace out of the basement, and Shake would help me. That’s how I moved and then I did become head of the Fraternity. Those were the days, you can look it up, we had 54 chapters, when I left there were 98 chapters. I’m very proud of that fact. I was like you. I can’t run anything sitting behind this big desk. I would be out there. Dad was Grand Herald, he never went any further. He didn’t want to be.
Ayalon: How were you able to grow the Fraternity so much?
Hills: My big mouth I guess. My dad was a Sigma Pi, my brother was a Sigma Pi, and I’m a Sigma Pi. I just didn’t think there were any other Fraternities. I don’t know why, I really don’t. I just loved to work, I really did, and then along comes Fryburg and Beyer who were just out of college and they lend me support all the way. They gave me hell when I wasn’t doing my job. They laid the foundation for Sigma Pi. We were a smaller group that worked together. They gave me hell when I was wrong. All of those people came to my wedding by the way. Every one of them. I love Sigma Pi.
Ayalon: We all do. We’ll keep fighting.
Hills: Find a goal. I didn’t shoot for 100 chapters. We had to get this thing going in the right direction. In those days it was easier.
Ayalon: Do you have any advice for me?
Hills: Advice? Make sure you have a good lawyer behind you!
Ayalon: I do, he works for the right price! [referring to John Kitch].
Hills: If you ever have time, look in the 1928 Emerald under Gamma Chapter and you’ll see “Congratulations to the Hills on the birth of their son.” That’s me. I’ve been in the Emerald since 1928.
Ayalon: I can look that up.
Hills: You’ll see pictures of dad. I appreciate you guys stopping by.