Jerry Hill, journalist and conservationist, dies at 69

BRADENTON — He will not tell his fishing or hunting stories any more.He won’t hold his favorite rod or rifle again, either.

We are the poorer for it.

Jerry Hill is gone.

A Bradenton Herald institution and community icon, the former outdoors writer died this afternoon at Blake Medical Center after a long illness.He was 69.

“Jerry Hill was one of a kind,” said Executive Editor Joan Krauter. “Not only was he an institution, but his knowledge of the community was matchless.”Mr. Hill wrote his first column at the Bradenton Herald on March 2, 1975, and during his 32-year tenure established himself as one of the most prolific and respected outdoors writers in Florida.

“If ever there was a Bradenton icon who looked after the outdoors, the environment and conservation, Jerry Hill stood at the front of the line,” said Mayor Wayne Poston, who was Herald executive editor for 24 years. “He got things done protecting the environment not just in Manatee County, but around Florida. Outdoor writers from around the state respected him and came to him for his opinion. There will never be another Jerry Hill.”

Mike Mersch, who was sports editor for 20 years, remembered his protege fondly.

“Jerry Hill was the most revered writer this paper ever had,” he said. “He was an absolute font of information. He truly lived his job. You couldn’t tell his work from his play. I can’t imagine anyone who lived his beat like him. No one was ever so identified with a beat as Jerry.”

Mr. Hill is survived by wife Jo Ann, sons Jerry Jr. and Calvin, and his grandchildren.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a better father to two boys,” Calvin said.Mr. Hill combined his love for his family with his passion for nature, and Herald readers got to know his family through his writing. Maybe he’d tell about the boys’ first wild hog kill or deer, or their annual vacation to Lake Okeechobee.

Mike Edwards was one of those readers and a frequent fishing companion.“Jerry was a gift to all of us,” he said. “I’m a fourth-generation Floridian and he knew about us. He had a terrific abilty to describe certain kinds of fish and the Florida outdoors in a cracker dialect we understood.”

For example, a redfish wasn’t just a redfish.

“Jerry called it a ‘rosette-hued, bullet-nosed brawler,’” Edwards said. “He’s a good ol’ cracker writer, is what he was. A good guy to be around.”

In the outdoors, Mr. Hill’s favorite activities were hog hunting and fly-fishing for bluegill. His fishing expertise even spilled over on professional fishing captains.

“He made me the fisherman that I am,” said Capt. Rick Gross. “It’s because of him.”

Mr. Hill not only was renowned for his angling and hunting abilities, he supplied his co-workers with plenty of venison sausage, fresh snapper, smoked mullet spread, wild turkey and boar. He provided his native Florida cuisine to the annual Ducks Unlimited banquet or the Manatee-Sarasota Fish Association’s Taste of Florida benefit auction dinners.

Mr. Hill also had a passion for environmental conservation, and his independence was demonstrated with his work on getting the commercial fishing net ban enacted in the Florida Legislature on July 1, 1995.

“It was a credit to Jerry and his courage, particularly since Cortez is Florida’s oldest fishing community,” said Mike Finney, who spent five years in the late 1970s as the Herald’s city editor and managing editor. “He was an example of someone at newspapers standing up for something that was not in the perceived commercial interest of a significant part of the community.

“Jerry was a brave guy, quite smart, and people didn’t appreciate his tenacity. People can be dismissive of outdoor writers when dealing with public policy, but here they were dismissive of the wrong person.”

Count Capt. Andy “Doc” Lee among those who respected Mr. Hill’s influence. “People who are new to Manatee County will never have any idea the effect that Jerry had as an outdoor writer in the state, and really fresh and saltwater fishing, over the years,” he said. “They’ll have no idea why the fishing so good. Because of his articles, he overwhelmingly caused a lot of people to get involved in conservation efforts.”

Mr. Hill’s style of reporting was simple and reflected the Florida cracker common sense with which he was raised.

He was the founder of the Herald organized-and-sponsored Florida Fishing College. The first year, there were 245 “students’ in attendance. Within 10 years, as many as 20,000 were setting aside a Saturday in February to learn about fishing with a host of volunteers, which were considered some of the state’s best anglers. At the time, the Florida Fishing College had become the largest pure fishing school in the southeast.

“He was in his glory at the Fishing College, just surrounded by people, moving from instructor to instructor,” Mersch said. “Jerry was the show. I’ve seen it so many times.

“I can’t picture Jerry without being surrounded by people at fishing games, fishing dinners, mobbed by friends. Most people in the room had had some personal fishing or hunting experience with him. They all knew him and took all took his word. Jerry was a writer for the people. Those he touched can’t be measured. I can’t fathom anyone who was that much loved and revered.”

Funeral arrangements for Mr. Hill are pending and will be handled by Brown & Sons Funeral Homes and Crematory.