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Leaders & Legends: Wayne Hill

Some call them moments of lucidity – those fleeting, crystal clear glimpses that sum up a situation or circumstance in a way not previously seen.

In a lifetime of public service, leadership and decidedly humble beginnings, Wayne Hill, now 80 years old, says it was in these rare moments that it came into focus just how far he’d come.
For a country boy from Sugar Hill with no college education, such instances presented themselves while shaking hands with the President of the United States. While attending a ribbon cutting for a water facility bearing his name. While gazing at a sure-enough statue of himself outside the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center.

Despite these personal milestones, which could easily inflate the ego of any given man, Hill laughs instead, reminiscing on them. It’s the good-natured chuckle of a man who can hardly believe the strange, unbelievable course his life has taken. After all, he’s still a country boy from Sugar Hill.

Despite his tendency to smile at the unreality of it all, the evidence is there, all around Gwinnett County. Hill worked hard, establishing what many would refer to as a legacy for generations of Gwinnettians to enjoy.

When asked about the specifics of that legacy and how he hopes to be remembered, Hill does something that is typically Hill. He shrugs off the notion of legacy. It’s a word he isn’t fond of. Once, years ago, a colleague asked him how they themselves could build a legacy.
He told them a legacy was the sort of thing that sorted itself out if you worked hard and did the right thing every day.

‘Setting pins’ and ‘sacking groceries’

Wayne Hill exited the post of Gwinnett County Commission chairman in 2004, leaving in his wake what few – including Hill himself – could dispute was a legacy.

Holding top public office in what was then a county of 700,000 residents and overseeing a more than $1.4 billion budget, folks soon took notice of his leadership style.

For one, Georgia Trend magazine bestowed him the Excellence in Public Service Award at the year of his departure from the commission. Additionally, he was commission chairman longer than anyone else has held that office in Gwinnett – 12 years straight.

Commission chairman wasn’t the only leadership post he’d hold. Hill was also chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission; president of the National Association of Regional Councils Board; served in many roles with the National Association of Counties; chairman of the Governmental Structures Subcommittee with Georgia Future Communities Commission; and was president of Association of County Commissioners of Georgia – receiving the Emory Greene Leadership Award in 2003 for his service.

It’s one of many awards Hill received over the years for his strength in leadership. In business and in government, leadership is a quality that’s always come natural to the man, whose first official job was about as humble as one can imagine.

“Well, I was 12 years old setting pins at the bowling alley,” Hill says, laughing. “It was in Sugar Hill, a little 4-lane alley. Wasn’t any air conditioning. I remember we would open the windows sometimes to cool it off a little and these guys would throw a ball so hard it would knock a pin out the window.”

From there, Hill worked on a milk truck route with stops all around Gwinnett and Forsyth counties. He worked at a Chamblee supermarket “sacking groceries” in the mid-1950s. While many of these jobs took him outside county lines, Hill was a Sugar Hill boy through and through, born in 1942 “inside a house, not a hospital.”

He says it was a “different world” back then.

He met wife, Carolyn, at North Gwinnett High School as part of the facility’s second ever graduating class (a group of 60 seniors). At the time, there were only 42,000 people in the county. Hill saw history come alive with each passing year as a young man, including the construction of Buford Dam and the slow swallowing of the valley that would become Lake Lanier. He watched them open the interstate too.

Upon graduating high school in 1960, Wayne started working full time with his dad at the family business, Hill Cabinet Company. There he stayed, taking over the small cabinet shop in 1972 when his father retired and continuing to expand it over the next two decades. In total, he ran the business for 35 years.

During his time running Hill Cabinet Company in the 1970s, Hill’s district commissioner approached him and asked if he’d have any interest serving on the newly-formed airport authority.

“I said, ‘what’s an airport authority?’” Hill recalls, laughing. He says the official remarked that Hill was the only person he knew who owned a plane and had a pilots’ license.

“I said yes,” Hill says. “That was my first brush with politics and it began an interest in it.”

Hill’s ‘right arm’

He would later be elected chairman of the authority and even throw his hat in a district commission seat race – which he lost. In 1992, a probate judge (who Hill says he was named after) suggested he change parties – from democrat to republican. “It’s the only way you can get elected,” the man told him.

He ran a second time and was elected to the county commission. He was named chairman in January 1993.

When Hill took office, the county had about about 400,000 residents. By the time he left office, there were 700,000. During this time, the county issued something in the neighborhood of 12,000 building permits every year.

“We did a lot,” he says. “I was surrounded by tremendous people. I had good employees. I had a good commission board working with me. Tommy Hughes, Judy Waters, the three of us run the same year. We didn’t know each other at first but we really connected.”
Charlotte Nash was someone else he connected with; the two formed an instant bond in their roles in county government and worked together extensively.

Many know Nash today as the former commission chairman. She started with the county in 1977 managing state and federal grants, rising eventually to finance director and administrator positions.

When Hill was elected commission chairman, Nash was county finance director. Hill says Nash was his “right arm.”

“She grew up in the south end of the county, and I grew up in the north,” he says. “We kind of connected that way and … every day at the end of the day we sat down and talked. I usually was doing the political side answering the phones and she’d tell me what happened today and where we need to be going.”

Nash concurs.

“We didn’t agree on everything but we agreed that we both loved the county and we each trusted that each of us had the good of Gwinnett County in mind … We tried to make sure that he as the commission chairman and I as the chief staff person knew what each of us was working on. We sorted out approaches we wanted to take to different issues and tried to make sure we were on the same page as much as possible,” Nash says.

Nash adds that she and Hill both had “a real love for Gwinnett County,” which was what brought them together on some of the toughest decisions – even if they didn’t agree on them 100 percent of the time.

“His willingness to make tough decisions has been one of his strengths as a leader,” she says. “I watched him make those even when he knew it would not be popular. He did that because he thought the decisions were necessary for Gwinnett County.”

Improving Water in Gwinnett

Two of Hill’s most lasting (and visible) legacies are the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center named in his honor and the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center, both of which he played a key role in bringing to fruition.

Today, the F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center in Buford is an award-winning advanced wastewater treatment facility. The water it cleans and returns to the environment is some of the highest quality effluent (cleaned wastewater) in the United States.

It is also a worldwide model for wastewater treatment, providing approximately 100 tours a year for visitors from around the world.

“I really worked hard for the wastewater and water situation,” Hill says. “We built that Wayne Hill Water Resource Center. We also put a second withdrawal into Lake Lanier. The problem with Gwinnett County is we’re in a split basin. The Chattahoochee River – if you go up the old Peachtree Road here, if it rains on that road, part of it goes to the gulf and part of it goes to the Atlantic. We always had a problem taking water out here and putting it in the other side. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to put water back in Lake Lanier.”

As a result of the commission’s work to improve water quality and efficiency in Gwinnett County, Hill says, today residents use less than they did 15 years ago, despite having a larger population.

During Hill’s 12-year tenure, the commission also secured property where Georgia Gwinnett College would be built; re-zoned property to clear way for the Mall of Georgia; and built thousands upon thousands of acres of green space, parks and athletic fields for Gwinnettians to enjoy.

Perhaps his biggest point of pride though is the construction and opening of the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center.

The contract to build the environmental center was the last one Hill signed during his tenure as commission chairman.

“It was built after I left office but the planning was all done while I was there,” he says. “We went all over the country looking (for inspiration for the center). When we first met to build the Hill water plant, we met with engineers and all kinds of people who would be working on the plant. Once we got everything together with the plant I wanted some kind of educational facility to talk with kids about the environment. It took 10 years to get it to reality.”

And as a testament to his work making it just that, the center’s board foundation hired a local artist to create a sculpture of Hill surrounded by likenesses of kids and a turtle – representing the desire to educate generations of young people from Gwinnett on the importance of environmental stewardship.

Hill recalls that as part of the process for creating the likeness of him, he was placed on a turntable while cameras took more than 1,200 photos of him. In 2018 as he stood before the bronze monument of himself, he had one of those moments – the moments of lucidity. The kind of moment that makes clear that, yes, this is your life, and yes, you’ve come a long way, Wayne Hill.

Moments of Lucidity

Another of these moments started with a phone call in 2004.

“I get a call one day, and they said, ‘do you want to come down and meet the President?’ I said, well yeah!” he recalls, laughing. “So, the guy on the phone says come to the Atlanta airport, and he told me where to meet them.”

Adds Hill: “I figured I’d be there with 100 of (President George W. Bush’s) closest friends. When I got there, it was only 8 of us, and the mayor (of Atlanta) was there. We go out on the tarmac and watch Air Force One land. I got to shake George W. Bush’s hand. I told him, Mr. President I’m just a lowly commission chairman here in Gwinnett. He says, ‘don’t you ever apologize for that.’ He said, ‘Wayne I started on the zoning board in Texas.’”

To this day, Hill has the photo of him and the former President framed on a bookshelf in his Suwanee home.

“Meeting the President was pretty earthshattering for a country boy who didn’t even go to college,” Hill says. “For me to be able to do what I’ve done, it’s been a remarkable life. No regrets.”

It was in these moments – meeting the President of the United States; gazing upon a bronze sculpture of himself at the Gwinnett Environmental Center; or any other number of moments – when Hill was struck by the amazing reality of how far he’d come.

The country boy born and raised in Sugar Hill who to this day isn’t wild on the notion of someone actively working to “build a legacy for themselves” did just that by following his own advice. Just as he advised a colleague years back when asked how to go about building a legacy, Hill worked hard and aimed to do the right thing every day.
And, as predicted, Wayne Hill’s legacy took care of itself.