Jack E. Hill, who died last week in a Little Rock hospital after a battle with cancer, had been Arkansas’ best and perhaps most prolific broadcast journalist for more than 35 years. He was, in fact, an outstanding journalist who proved how powerful visual media can be when used for serious news gathering and reporting.
Although television has been around for a while, we still don’t see much in-depth reporting except at the national level, and then only on occasion. Commercial TV stations and networks find that the money is more in entertainment than news.
Local TV newscasts remain confined to 30-minute segments, which really means about 10 minutes of commercials and 20 minutes of news, weather and sports, including a portion of “happy talk.” Those who read the news are usually promoted as “celebrities,” rather than journalists, and few of them go after stories with the vigor and determination that Jack Hill did.
Viewers of Jonesboro station KAIT benefited from his reporting for about 10 years, starting in 1975 when he left bigger markets to come home to Arkansas. When he read the news, you could be sure that he had researched it thoroughly, and he didn’t shy away from controversial stories. His investigative reporting was on par with any print journalists.
Among his best work were numerous stories and-or series on a controversial St. Francis County sheriff, the late Coolidge Conley; the Posse Comitatus cult; and disaster in Lawrence County and railroad crossing safety in northeastern Arkansas.
Because that didn’t always fit within those short newscasts, he also produced documentaries for KAIT, and over the years he won numerous awards for his investigative reporting and documentaries.
Eventually, Jack and KAIT came to a parting of the ways, not entirely a happy one where he was concerned, but I’d contend that his most lasting work came after that.
He moved to Little Rock and formed his own independent company, Tele Vision of Arkansas Education, for which he served as owner-operator, reporter-producer, grant solicitor-promoter and no telling what else. Over the years, he produced another 60 documentaries for Arkansas television, focusing mostly on the state’s culture and history.
Somehow he always managed to find the money to do fascinating stories that nobody else could do, and his work will add greatly to Arkansas history.
Here are a few examples, many of which, you’ll note, reflect his background in and love for northeastern Arkansas:
—“Steamboats A-Coming,” a 2001 documentary that showed the rich heritage of Arkansas tourism.
—“Dollar a Day and All You Can Eat,” 2003, a half-hour special on the Civilian Conservation Crops that helped build Crowley’s Ridge and four other Arkansas state parks.
—“Arkansas’ Hemingway,” a documentary produced in 2003 for AETN detailing the Arkansas connection in the life of Nobel Prize winner and author Ernest Hemingway.
—“A Place Called Home,” a 2004 documentary on the Depression-era government-operated farm settlement project at Clover Bend.
— “Wings of Honor,” a 2005 documentary on the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School during World War II.
—“Before Little Rock: Successful Arkansas School Integration,” a 2007 film about the successful integration of schools at Fayetteville, Charleston and Hoxie.
—“Lakeport Lives On,” 2008, which focused on the African-American heritage associated with Lakeport Plantation and the Lakeport Plantation house.
—“Faces Like Ours,” 2009, a report on the German and Italian prisoners of war in Arkansas during the 1940s, including the camp in Jonesboro.
During my years as editor of The Sun, I’d get a call from Jack whenever he had a new documentary to promote. He’d want to make sure I got the news release from whatever entity had scheduled it.
Most often his films would be shown on AETN, but sometimes he got commercial television stations to air them, too. For example, “Steamboats A-Coming” had an initial run of 10 plays, including stations in Jonesboro, Little Rock, Fort Smith-Fayetteville, Monroe, La., and Texarkana, with an estimated total audience of 300,000.
Those aren’t exactly American Idol numbers, but those who watched his films were always a little better educated afterward.
A graduate of Rogers High School, Jack was a letterman on the 1957 basketball team that won a state championship. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and a master’s from the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism. Before putting his education to work in his profession, he spent two years as an infantry lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
He had been in ill health for several months and wasn’t aware of a final honor. In May, the UA journalism faculty voted to present him with its 19th annual Ernie Deane Award for valor in journalism. Unfortunately, the award couldn’t be presented in time, but plans are for the cash stipend that goes with it to be used to help finish his final documentary.
Jack was remembered by family and friends in a memorial service Friday at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock. A good many others will remember him for his work, much of which will be of use for many years to come.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.