Classic power broker, quiet legend: Jesse Hill

By Leona Barr Davenport Contributing Columnist | 1/4/2013, noon

Think about all the significant developments in Atlanta’s ascension to international status: the civil rights movement, Maynard Jackson’s election as the city’s first black mayor, the launch of MARTA, Andrew Young’s election to U.S. Congress, the integration of Atlanta’s schools, even Jimmy Carter’s winning presidential bid.

What do they all have in common?: The fingerprints of entrepreneur-activist, Jesse Hill Jr.

In fact, there aren’t many major Atlanta events over the past 30 years or that don’t have Jesse Hill’s signature written all over it.

While the name may not be as familiar as some of the city’s more famous or colorful leaders, Jesse Hill Jr. often was the man orchestrating events from behind the scenes. His death last month at age 86 represents the passing of a major architect and champion of Atlanta’s rise to prominence.

Those of us in the Atlanta business community will especially miss his steady leadership. The former perennial chief executive officer of Atlanta Life Insurance Company also was a longtime member and supporter of the Atlanta Business League, receiving the league’s “CEO of the Year” Award in 1988.

William Clement, a protégé groomed to lead Atlanta Life before retiring in 2011, described Hill as “a quintessential power broker,” who avoided the limelight.

According to Clement, who met Hill in 1971 during Maynard Jackson’s historic first campaign for mayor, Hill exerted influence on matters of politics, education, community empowerment, civil rights and, of course, throughout the Atlanta business community.

“He got a lot of positive things done behind the scenes,” Clement said.

As Hill made inroads as the first black president of the Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the first to serve on the University of Georgia Board of Regents, he remained dedicated to charting a path for those who would follow.

Known for his concise, direct and sometimes intimidating communications style, Hill also was known as a bridge for a new generation of leaders. By way of his example and his actions, he made sure the opportunities afforded him could be conferred to others like him.

Alice White Bussey, co-owner of Bussey Florist, recalls his unflagging support of her tenure as the first female president of the Atlanta Business League.

“He helped guide me in creating new ways to develop the league,” Bussey recalled. Hill also gave her words to live by: “To make change, you must be present.”

Another league member, Rhonda Brown of Brown Office Supplies, recalls her first meeting as the first African American business owner elected to the board of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. As president of the ABL, Brown had a seat on the