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Leon M. Hill Jr., pioneering educator in the Philadelphia public school system, dies at 91

Mr. Hill had a long, distinguished career with the School District of Philadelphia, 1954 through 1990.

Leon M. Hill Jr.
Leon M. Hill Jr.Read moreCourtesy of the Hill Family (Custom credit)

Leon Melvin Hill Jr., 91, of Wynnefield, a pioneering Black educator in Philadelphia and a well-known figure in professional, social, and civic circles, died Friday, Dec. 11, of complications from dementia at the Watermark at Logan Square, where he had lived for the last three years.

Mr. Hill had a long, distinguished career with the School District of Philadelphia from 1954 through 1990. He started as a fifth-grade teacher at Carver Elementary School in North Philadelphia and then became a school counselor at Loesche Elementary School in the Northeast.

But after careful thought, he sought further training and eventually became the primary school psychologist for the public school system’s Greater Northeast Region. It was known then as District 8.

“While he enjoyed the classroom, he saw children whose needs weren’t being met, and knew it was important to pursue higher education to help meet their needs,” said his son Marc Lamont Hill, an activist, TV commentator, and professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University.

At the time, there were few African Americans in the city who were public school psychologists. “There were even fewer in the Northeast, which was predominately white,” his son said. “He felt it was important for white children to get those services, as well. In a way, he was navigating new water.”

Mr. Hill was patient and disciplined, punctual and detail-oriented. He believed that correctly evaluating children for future learning tracks was not just a procedural but also an ethical obligation he owed to the students and their families.

Born in Washington, Ga., to L.M. and Lillie May Hill, Mr. Hill moved to Philadelphia in 1950 after a stint in the Army, to join his brother, Bobbie. The move was part of the migration by Black families from the segregated rural South to Northern cities in search of job opportunities and a better life.

He was educated in the public schools in Georgia. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Cheyney State Teachers College, a master’s degree in counseling from Pennsylvania State University, and certification as a school psychologist from Glassboro State College, now Rowan University.

After retiring in 1990, he turned his attention to owning and managing rental properties throughout the city. He sold the properties in the 2000s. He was an expert at home repair and do-it-yourself projects, and liked to recruit his son to do some of the work.

Mr. Hill was an active member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. and the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge. He donated regularly to the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union.

“He was a proud Kappa and one of the city’s most widely regarded and known Black educators,” his son said.

He enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren and helping to foster programs such as summer camp for children in North and West Philadelphia communities. “He would volunteer his time and give money, but as he got older, he did more financially,” his son said.

“My dad was universally known as a kind and generous spirit, who loved to eat, laugh, and spend time with his family and friends,” his son said. “He was the type of person who would give a ride to strangers and loan money that he knew he’d never get back. He gave all that he had freely.”

He was a sports fanatic, and especially keen on Phillies baseball. “We’d spend hours on the porch listening to Phillies baseball,” his son said. “I’ll miss that the most. The porch was his sanctuary, and enjoying every pitch and play was one of the great things we did.”

In 1969, Mr. Hill married Hallean Adkins Hill. They moved to North and then West Philadelphia to raise a family.

Besides his wife and son Marc, he is survived by children Deborah Jordan, Darrell Jordan, Leonard Hill, and Anthony Hill; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A viewing was on Tuesday, Dec. 29. A full memorial service will be held once it is safe for mourners to gather.