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Research itself was an unexpected passion for Hill, as if stumbled upon in someone's basement. Like McCullough and Burns and others he works for, Hill is not an academic and received no formal training for his profession.
FINDING HIS NICHE
A native of Honesdale, Pa., he was a political science major at Kent State University, received a law degree at the University of Akron and a master's in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. After college, Hill was a press aide for Vice President Walter Mondale and later for Rep. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey.
But by 1982, he was in personal and professional crisis, unhappy with politics and in a marriage on the verge of collapse. Around this time, Hill read McCullough's classic work on the Brooklyn Bridge, "The Great Bridge," and was so engaged that he decided to write to the author and volunteer his help. He learned that McCullough lived on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts and reasoned that he might appreciate having someone in Washington to look up documents. His letter was addressed "David McCullough/Martha's Vineyard."
"A couple of months went by and I totally forgot about it," Hill says. "I came home one day, a particularly beaten-down day, opened up the mailbox and there's this letter from David. He was moving to Washington to work on the Truman book. I called him the next day, and he said he had research assistants before, but they hadn't worked out too well. 'Since you're here and I'm here, let's have lunch.'"
Word spread about his good work. McCullough introduced Hill to a young documentary maker named Ken Burns, then in the middle of a film about the late Louisiana populist Huey Long and soon to begin his Civil War documentary. Burns jokes about having to share Hill's time with McCullough.
"You could tell it was a dutiful decision on David's part whether he would let me know about this extraordinarily resourceful human being," Burns explains with a laugh. "[McCullough] just said, 'If you need a blue Volkswagen turned upside down on a downtown street tomorrow morning, he'll figure out a way to do it.'"
Historians praise Hill not just for the obvious gifts of knowledge and agility, but as one who pushes just a little harder than other researchers and gets archivists to do the same for him.