Janet Hill was Grant Hill’s mother, Calvin Hill’s wife and a fearless star

How

The South Lakes High graduating class of 1990 didn’t have to look far to choose a star to illuminate its commencement. The father of his senior all-American basketball player, Grant Hill, was Calvin Hill. He had a Super Bowl ring he won as a Dallas Cowboys running back; an offensive rookie of the year award; all-Pro on his resume after 12 NFL seasons, including two in Washington that planted his family here. He was the all-time leading receiver at Yale, where he earned a degree in history.

So it was with great pleasure that the chairman of the graduation committee, Jenise Bordatto, walked to the lectern and announced: “We’d now like to announce our guest speaker, Mrs. Hill.”

Janet Hill, Grant’s mom and Calvin’s wife, died Saturday after a year-long battle with brain cancer. She was 74.

Duke University — where Janet and Calvin’s only child earned a history degree like his dad and all-American honors of his own, leading his team to two national championships — lowered its flags in her honor. She served Duke as a trustee for 15 years until last year.

“Although she would say I inherited my athletic ability from my father,” Grant told me by phone on Tuesday, “I think she impacted me in every area. She went about everything with such integrity and pursuance of excellence.”

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I’m not writing about Janet, as she insisted everyone call her, because she was an athlete. She wasn’t. I’m not writing about her because she was a professional or collegiate sports official. She was neither. I’m not even writing about her because she was a seven-time NBA all-star’s mom, or a four-time NFL Pro Bowler’s wife of 52 years.

I’m writing about her because she epitomized what we’ve been told is the greatest quality of the greatest coaches: being a selfless guide and advocate for apprentices in the ultimate game that is life.

She was that to her Hall of Fame son — who was elected to the Duke board following his mother’s stint — as evidenced by his intelligence, humility and distinction. To her son’s friends at Duke, a few of whom were athletes but most of whom were not. To young Black men, in particular, whom she puts through her life’s work, her husband’s travels and her son’s ancestry. There’s Derrick and Kareem and Mark and Riche and Mike and …

“I’m getting texts from people right now who said, ‘Janet wouldn’t remember me, but, dot dot dot dot dot,’” said Mark Williams, who as team manager shepherded Grant on his recruiting trip to Duke and met Janet upon Grant’s enrollment. “You hear this from so many people. You hear this, and you realize how much of a profound impact she had.”

Janet volunteered to others’ kids the sort of direction from which she prospered from her parents. She was born in segregated New Orleans and reared on her coloreds-only side. Her mother, Vivian, and father, Malcolm McDonald, were believed to be the first Black certified dental technicians in New Orleans. They put Janet through all-Black Catholic schools until she graduated from high school in 1965.

“My mother read an article about Wellesley … and she made the decision that Wellesley was the place I should apply, and go to, to get me out of a segregated South,” Janet said years ago in a Wellesley video.

“I didn’t meet anyone White at all until I got to Wellesley,” she said. “I was a little taken back. They seemed self-assured in ways that I was not. Three days in, I tried to bail out.”

But Janet recalled her mother imploring, “’You knew they were White. You can compete with them. You’re not coming home.’”

So Janet graduated from Wellesley in a class including five other Black women — and Hillary Clinton. She earned a Master’s in mathematics education from the University of Chicago. And she began what became her lifelong mentorship of younger people, starting as a teacher of math in high school and college. That role was only enhanced as she became a special assistant and White House liaison to the secretary of the Army, the first Black person to hold that position; started a consulting firm with that secretary, Clifford Alexander, the first Black secretary of the Army; and began serving on numerous boards: the Wendy’s Company, the Carlyle Group, Dean Foods, Houghton Mifflin, the Kennedy Center.

I first met Janet in Dallas through her Wellesley classmate Alvia Wardlaw, a foremost curator of African American art who was serving the Dallas Museum of Art. Janet had returned to Dallas to join Calvin as a special counselor to players on the NFL team that drafted him. But I got to know Janet in Washington in a role that, on the face of it, seemed out of her bailiwick: as a member of college sports watchdog and policy group called the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. But nothing was beyond Janet’s field of study.

“We were on the Wendy’s board when I was president of Ohio State,” William “Brit” Kirwan, the retired Maryland chancellor, told me on Wednesday. “She was the only woman on the board and … she was absolutely fearless.” When Kirwan took over as co-chair of the Knight Commission, he broke his mold by inviting Janet.

“Almost all, without exception, people on the Knight Commission had some professional experience connected to collegiate athletics,” Kirwan said. “I can’t think of another person that was sort of a citizen. But she had lived [the collegiate athletic experience], with a star athlete as a husband and star athlete as a son, in ways other members had not. She had sensible and reasonable ideas about how intercollegiate athletics should work. The university and education was her central focus.”

Janet was, after all, with her advanced mathematics degree and foundation in teaching and research, an academic. As was her husband, who for several years in Dallas pursued a theology degree at SMU. As was her son, who doubled his major in political science and whose Duke friends Janet all but certified based on how seriously they took their present.

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When Derrick Heggans as a Duke junior met Grant as a freshman, he counseled Grant on college life. In exchange, Grant put Heggans, who had an interest in business management, in touch with his mother.

“I was thinking about going to Duke for an MBA, and Advantage called and said, ‘We have an opening in our basketball department,’” Heggans recounted to me Thursday. “Janet said, ‘Isn’t that what you want to do?’ She said, ‘You can always go back to get your MBA.’”

“That’s kind of the way she was,” recalled Judy Woodruff, the PBS NewsHour anchor and another Duke alumna. “She wanted to know everything going on in your life. And I’m sure with these young men, she identified as a mother.”

Heggans went to work for the legendary sports marketing firm founded by DC lawyer Donald Dell. When Grant became the No. 3 pick in the 1994 NBA draft, Janet and Calvin trusted his fellow alum to represent him. Heggans eventually opted to get a law degree and left Advantage for the NFL’s general counsel office.

“Janet was so selfless,” Heggans said.

Wardlaw remembered the last time the quintet of ’69 Black Wellesley grads got together. Hurricane Katrina was brewing off the shore of New Orleans and they were sitting in Janet’s Northern Virginia home watching the news.

“I remember her saying she had to get her mother to Dallas before that storm hit, and she did,” Wardlaw said. “That’s kind of a metaphor of how she dealt with her family and friends: to make sure everyone was ok so everyone could meet their potential.”

In early August, Duke announced the 2022 recipients of its highest honor, the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service. The awards next month will be to President Emeritus Richard H. Brodhead, and Janet Hill.

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