When asked to share his secret for living a long life, Eddie Hill, 99, responds quickly with a smile: “The good Lord and a good wife.”
A farmer, a World War II veteran, an engineer, a husband, and a father, Hill has seen plenty in his lifetime. As he plans to celebrate his 100th birthday on Tuesday , Hill wants to enjoy every day to the fullest by staying active and helping others as long as possible.
“I never expected to reach this milestone,” said Hill. “I’m blessed to reach this age.”
Hill was born on April 20, 1921, in Dalzell, S.C., a rural community near Sumter, the fourth of 14 children — eight girls and six boys. His parents, James and Ralphenia, a generation removed from slavery, grew just about everything on their 100-acre farm, including peas, corn, and cotton. They instilled a strong work ethic in the children, who helped tend the land to support the family.
“Life was good on the farm. There was no other life,” he recalled.
Hill was affectionately known as “Darling” by family and friends. He got the nickname from a great-grandmother who took one look at him when he was born and declared he was too beautiful to be called by his given name, Eddie Walker Hill.
The second-oldest son, Hill dropped out of school in the 10th grade because the family couldn’t afford to have two children enrolled at the same time. His father asked Eddie to work the farm full-time so that his oldest brother, Johnnie,could finish high school and then college. He was asked again to delay his education to allow a sister, Thelma, to attend college.
“I never did go back,” he said.
Hill enlisted in the Army in 1942 during World War II. He spent time in Germany, England, and France, building bridges and roads. He was assigned to the elite 1695 Engineer Combat Battalion, an all-Black unit with white officers in charge.
“That was the way of life. Whether you liked it or not, there wasn’t anything you could do about it,” Hill recalled matter-of-factly about the racially segregated military, just like the country was at the time.
While serving abroad, Hill never forgot his family back home, sending letters and a $10 allotment check from his $50 monthly paycheck to his mother. He helped send his sister, Ida, and other siblings to college.
“He’s amazing. He was always helping,” recalled Ida Clark, 87, of Clinton, Md., a retired schoolteacher and one of three surviving sisters. “He was like a father to me.”
After an honorable discharge in 1946, Hill eventually made his way to Newark, N.J., where he worked as a machine operator in a fabric factory, in an auto parts store, and started an auto repair business with a friend. He was fascinated with cars and attended Essex County Vocational School to learn everything about them, from bumper to bumper. He retired from the state as an HVAC engineer in 1990.
He married his first wife, Thelma, in 1947, but she tragically died after an extended illness in 1952. The dashingly handsome widow married again in 1956, “one of the best days in my life,” he said. His wife of 60 years, Rudine Daniels, died in 2016. The couple had one son, Howard.
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After living in North Jersey for decades, Eddie and Rudine relocated to Beverly in 2008. The couple did everything together and especially enjoyed traveling to Martha’s Vineyard and the Poconos. When Eddie was diagnosed with prediabetes, Rudine put them both on healthy diets, a lifestyle that he maintained after her death.
“We had a nice life,” he said. “She kept me on the straight and narrow.”
These days, Hill maintains his independence — he still drives — and keeps active, running errands for neighbors in his Burlington County retirement community, picking up groceries or transporting them to doctor’s appointments. He loves to play cards and Bingo.
Hill relishes the chance to put his gray 2016 Chrysler 200 on the road. On a recent Friday outing at the Moorestown Mall, his nephew Burnett Sanders, 81, of Willingboro, lagged behind as Hill walked briskly through the mall, part of his exercise routine.
“I can’t keep up with him walking,” said a smiling Sanders.
The patriarch of a large extended family with nearly three dozen nieces and nephews who stay in touch with him via Zoom, Hill makes friends everywhere he goes. There are lots of “Uncle Eddie” stories, like the one where he patiently taught granddaughter Kendall Armstrong how to drive. He also has two other grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and six great-great-grandchildren. “He’s my hero,” said Armstrong, 51, of Reading.
“He’s just a lovable guy,” said a niece, Joy Hill, 63, of Houston, a retired district judge. “He keeps us laughing.”
Deeply spiritual, Hill was a familiar face every week for Sunday worship and Wednesday Bible study at Alpha Baptist Church in Willingboro before the pandemic, said his pastor, the Rev. Danny Scotton Sr. His favorite Scripture, James 4:17, sums up how he has tried to live, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” Hill previously was a trustee and a longtime member of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark.
“God bless him. That’s all I can say,” said church member Nicole Samson of Mount Laurel. “I hope to be like Mr. Eddie.”
Hill offered to pick up parishioners for church and volunteered to chauffeur Scotton — he politely declined. Hill had planned to stop driving at age 100, but has recently had second thoughts about putting down his keys. He reluctantly accepted a ride from a church member to get his COVID-19 vaccine.
“He’s a great man, just a good soul,” said Scotton. But he’s not the oldest in the congregation of more than 1,350 members — that title belongs to Rosetta Boyer, 101.
Besides his wife, Hill credits his faith for his longevity. He is the oldest surviving sibling. His advice: “Make the most out of every moment.”
“I just think I’m blessed, wonderfully blessed,” he said. “I always felt that I was being blessed so I can help others.”