Friday, November 6, 2009

Hugh M. Hill; weaved stories as Brother Blue

Hugh M. Hill; weaved stories as Brother Blue
By Talia Whyte
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2009

Calling himself Brother Blue, he was best known for his passionate, uplifting storytelling, sensitive ear, and mentoring of other raconteurs in Boston and Cambridge.

Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill, an internationally renowned performance artist and official storyteller of both Cambridge and Boston, died in his Cambridge home Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 88.

“He believed deeply in the medium of storytelling because it brought people together, and he was delighted to be around others who liked to tell stories,’’ said Jay O’Callahan, a storyteller from Marshfield.

Born in Cleveland, Dr. Hill served in the Army in both Europe and Asia from 1943 to 1946 during World War II, leaving as a first lieutenant.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in social relations from Harvard University in 1948, a masters in fine arts in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama in 1953, and a doctorate in storytelling from Union Graduate School in 1973, which was a collaborative initiative between Harvard and Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.

He started his career as a storyteller in the late 1960s, when he traveled to prisons throughout the state with his wife, Ruth Edmonds Hill.

He had met his wife while he was an undergraduate at Harvard and she was a student at Simmons in the early ’50s.

According to family friend and storyteller Laura Packer of Malden, he changed his name to Brother Blue to have a moniker that would help him connect with the prisoners.

He was not above playing the jester, she said. “It was important to him to be eccentric and be the fool in the room to grab attention so others would feel comfortable being a fool, too.’’

Dr. Hill also was known for the butterfly painted on his face and hands. Packer said the butterfly represented his late brother Tommy. Growing up, Tommy, who was mentally disabled, was fascinated by butterflies and had a sense of humanity Dr. Hill thought many lacked. Dr. Hill spoke often about his brother, who died young but lived freely, like a butterfly - beautiful and delicate.

Over the years, Dr. Hill became a Cambridge personality with his eccentric blue attire and provocative storytelling in and around Harvard and Central squares, as well as at festivals and workshops.

Packer met Dr. Hill in Harvard Square in 1986, and said the meeting changed her life, helping her realize storytelling also was her calling.

“I was just mesmerized by him,’’ she said. “He told me once ‘You have the power,’ and that was it for me.’’

Packer also recalled a time when Dr. Hill and his wife were in a Cambridge cafe and a man down on his luck came to them, pleading for money to take a bus home to New Hampshire. Dr. Hill was so inspired by the man’s story of hardship that he passed a hat so patrons could contribute.

For other narrators, Dr. Hill was a centerpiece in the local community.

He made such an impression that Warren Leher wrote the 1995 biography “Brother Blue: A Narrative Portrait of Brother Blue A.K.A. Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill.’’ In 2003, Somerville’s Yellow Moon Press published “Ahhhh! A Tribute to Brother Blue and Ruth Edmonds Hill,’’ a compilation of stories, poems, and photos submitted by area poets, writers, and artists and dedicated to the Hills.

Dr. Hill also received many international awards for his art, including the lifetime achievement award from the National Storytelling Network in 1999 and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Local Programming Award.

By resolution of the city councils, Brother Blue has the distinction of being the official storyteller of Cambridge and Boston.

Fellow storyteller Kevin Brooks of Malden was inspired by Dr. Hill while a student at MIT. He described him as the father of modern storytelling, someone who sometimes walked around Harvard Square barefoot.

Brooks recalled the way Dr. Hill attracted others during a Shakespearean storytelling event at MIT. At first, most of the audience appeared ambivalent toward the elderly man dressed in blue, but they quickly became engaged when he invited audience members on stage to participate.

“The students were speechless,’’ Brooks said. “After the performance, people just surrounded him, wanting to know more about him.’’

His wife said he made his living telling stories; he didn’t have a “standard job,’’ she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, shortly before he died, she said, he told her a love story.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Hill leaves his sister, Beatrice of Streetsboro, Ohio.

A brief service is planned for Monday, at 1 p.m. in Pittsfield Cemetery in Pittsfield. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

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