WHAT WE ATE
Olde Towne Tavern and Grille — Suwanee
Chicken tender salad $7.99
Buffalo pizza $9.99
Diet coke $1.99
Editor’s note: “Out To Lunch” is a periodic feature that allows readers a chance to learn about the people behind the titles in Gwinnett County through a lunchtime conversation with a member of the GDP staff. The subject picks the place, we pick up the tab and then share the conversations that occur during the meal.
SUWANEE — As he cracks a proud smile, Wayne Hill pulls out a cell phone picture of his wife holding a 100-pound sail fish the couple caught while in Costa Rica.
“You’ve always heard, you oughta be here yesterday, well, we were there yesterday,” Hill said.
For the former Gwinnett County Chairman, the eight years following Hill’s retirement have been more than the boy who stood on Highway 20 decades ago rabbit hunting with his grandfather, father and uncle could have imagined. Or the same boy who sacked groceries alongside Brooks Coleman at the Big Apple Supermarket in Brookhaven.
“In my life, I’ve done more than I ever dreamed,” Hill said.
A week before he went pheasant hunting in South Dakota last month, Hill reminisced about his early hunting days.
“I stood in the middle of Highway 20,” Hill said. “Waiting for a rabbit to come across the road to shoot.”
Sipping a tea over lunch at the Old Towne Taverne in Suwanee’s Town Center Park, Hill recalled how he’s watched Gwinnett County grow over seven decades, his hunting and fishing trips around the globe and an upcoming birthday of one of his seven grandchildren.
He works part-time now for Moreland Altobelli Associates, an engineering and management firm, and enjoys staying active in several civic groups.
As he reminisced about his time as chairman when Gwinnett grew exponentially, Hill was proud that the county obtained a AAA credit rating, rising from an A, during his 12-year stint as chairman, what he said was one of six such ratings for 3,300 counties around the country.
“I put my life into it for 12 years,” said Hill, who lives on 25 acres across from Sims Lake Park in Suwanee. “I still care about it and want to see it be prosperous.”
While Hill has no regrets, he admitted “you’d always change a few things,” but said he ran the county like a business, and when he left office, he said the county had $1 billion in the bank.
“If I made a mistake, it was how much money I left in the bank,” he said. “But I didn’t want somebody to accuse me of leaving the county broke. They didn’t have to deal with reality, they got used to spending money.”
Before he was chairman, Hill ran a cabinet company that his father, who had only a fourth-grade education, started in 1953. Hill ran the company from 1972-1992, and his son took it over until a fire consumed the building in the late 1990s.
The Suwanee that Hill knew as a youngster was much different than today. Sitting in the crowded Old Towne during lunch hour recently, Hill said he probably didn’t know anyone in the restaurant, whereas years ago he would have known almost everyone.
“Suwanee’s changed drastically,” he said. “The city’s done a good job, and it’s admired by a lot of different places. Everybody wants to be like Suwanee.”
Hill said Suwanee’s growth mirrored Gwinnett County’s, and he credited city leaders.
“You had a group of folks that got elected that didn’t know they couldn’t do something,” he said. “Sometimes, things just work out.”
Growing up in Sugar Hill, the North Gwinnett High graduate said he and his family and friends didn’t know they were poor. And when someone got a job at the GM plant in Chamblee, that was a solid, well-paying job.
About the same time Lake Lanier was built, in the 1950s, Hill played third base on an undefeated youth baseball team. A highlight for him was driving down Highway 23 to see the Atlanta Crackers play.
He gave up flying after 39 years because of open heart surgery following a routine checkup that found a blockage. While he said, “maybe the good Lord was telling me something,” Hill also adds that he was healthier after the procedure, and despite two letters from doctors to the Federal Aviation Administration, Hill wasn’t allowed to fly his Cherokee 6, six-seat plane again.
While he was Chairman of the Gwinnett County Commission, Hill said flying helped him attend meetings around Gwinnett, and then fly to a family timeshare on Amelia Island.
“It worked good for me while I was in office,” Hill said. “When you’re flying, you can’t have your mind on anything else.”
Hill said he would vote for Mitt Romney in the presidential election because, “we’ve got to get some kind of change going on.”
He continues to follow county politics, and said the recent corruption scandals “turn your heart up,” but he said with Charlotte Nash as chairwoman, and the recent election of Suwanee’s Jace Brooks to the Board of Commissioners that, “hopefully we’re headed back in the right direction.”
On the charter schools debate, Hill is in the “no” camp.
“I think it has the potential to set aside a whole generation that won’t be as educated,” he said. “It will create a divide.”
Hill admits he wonders why the issue is on the ballot at all.
“I think it’s the wrong thing they’re doing putting it out there,” Hill said. “We have become a ‘me’ society. It used to be what’s best for the whole. Now it’s what’ best for me and mine. I had to look at what’s best for the whole. I don’t want to see us turn into a state that we’re like a third-world country.”