WWII veteran believed to be oldest man in the country remembered as prominent shoe store owner, loving friend

Published on: October 15, 2022 5:15 PM EDT|Updated on: October 17, 2022 10:04 AM EDT

Ezra Hill Sr., a Baltimore native, died at the age of 111 on Oct. 4. He was believed to be the oldest living World War II veteran at the time of his death.

Ezra Edward Hill Jr. of Owings Mills recalled his dad’s war stories and remembered what it was like working for the Baltimore shoe store his dad owned. But while having coffee with his wife Saturday morning, Hill mostly spent time talking about the kind of person Ezra Edward Hill Sr., was.

“He’s a very generous person,” Ezra Hill Jr. said. “He was there when you needed him.”

The senior Hill, a Baltimore native, died Oct. 4 at the age of 111 from natural causes and is believed to have been the oldest living World War II veteran and the oldest man in the country.

He was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Dec. 19, 1910, to Alice Reid Hill and James Hezekiah Hill and is survived by his former wife, Doris, his daughter, Constance, and his son. He also leaves behind children in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

After Ezra Hill Sr. graduated from Frederick Douglass High School and Morgan State College, now Morgan State University, he worked as an auto mechanic at Aero-Genius and later opened his own business, the Avalon Shoe Store, in 1937 on Gay Street in the Oldtown neighborhood. That’s where he met his future wife, Doris, when he hired her as a clerk. Though the two were later divorced, Doris Hill said their friendship lasted for 82 years. He was good at making friends, she said, and the friends he made, he kept.

“It’s strange that I would say all of those things because we are divorced,” she said. “But he never accepted the divorce. I was always his wife until the day he died.”

They met in 1940 after Doris Hill, then Doris Cooper, graduated from Douglass. She knew how to type, and Ezra Hill Sr. wanted a “girl” to work for him.

The 100-year-old who now lives in Randallstown said she worked six days a week for at least 12 hours a day. Her haul was $6 by the end of the week. The business was thriving, she said. They only sold the best shoes, so she stuck around.

Two years later, they married, and by 1943 her husband enlisted in the army. Doris Hill ran the business while he was gone, and she picked up another job to keep it going.

She worked at Avalon from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., then at the Social Security Administration from 4 p.m. until midnight. All while raising a 6-month-old baby. Her family helped, but it was still tough, she said. When her husband returned, Malcom X, who often came to speak at a mosque at Morgan State, gave the couple some sound advice.

“His words were to ‘forget the classes and you do business with the masses,’ ” Doris Hill said. “My husband didn’t know what he meant. Then we realized we were in a community where everyone was making minimum wage.”

The Hills, who lived above the store, decided to make it more affordable by offering credit accounts. Customers were mostly mothers buying shoes for their children. They could pay $2 a week for the shoes or $8 a month. The business model led to the store’s success.

It stayed open for 50 years, and the two were honored by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer with a citation honoring that half-century of service.

“I always felt that that’s where I was supposed to be,” Doris Hill said about working at Avalon.

Her son said the store was an iconic institution in East Baltimore that attracted thousands of customers. Easter and Christmas were the busiest times. And Ezra Hill Jr. chipped in to help, along with his late sister, also named Doris.

“We were so packed, we’d have to give numbers,” Ezra Hill, Jr. said.

When a customer’s number was called, one of the 10 salesmen would assist. The Hills later sold the business to their son. It closed in the 1990s.

While Ezra Hill Sr. was in the Army, he served in the European Theater of Operations and received a European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon citation, according to his discharge papers. He reached the rank of sergeant, fought in the Normandy campaign, received a battle star and became a marksman. An injury in France sent him back home to Baltimore.

“He was one of the last guys to look the Nazis in the eye,” his son said.

Ezra Hill Jr. said his dad was in a segregated unit called the 10th Engineers.

“Let’s just say, in those times, the Negro soldiers were not treated as equally,” Ezra Hill Jr. said.

While in England, members in his unit wanted to visit a venue but were told they were not allowed in because they were Black. The soldiers went back to camp and told the rest of their unit the story. Then truckloads of soldiers, including Ezra Hill Sr., returned to the venue and desegregated the place for that day. It’s a story he would later tell his son.

His son said he was told by Veteran Affairs that his dad was the oldest veteran in the United States at the time of his death and that the Gerontology Research Group Supercentenarian Research and Database Division said he was the oldest person in America.

A spokesperson for the National WWII Museum said it’s hard to say if Ezra Hill Sr. was the oldest living veteran because 180 veterans die a day. The museum’s statistics show there were 167,284 veterans in the country this year and 2,876 in Maryland. In January, Lawrence Brooks, who was considered the oldest living Word War II veteran, died at 112.

Robert Young, who heads the gerontology research group, said that after Brooks’ death, Ezra Hill Sr. took over the title and held it for nine months. Based on the information that’s available and on the people who have applied for the title, they believe he was the oldest man alive.

“Ezra Hill is the last known man in America that was born in the year 1910,” Young said. “His death is a major milestone. He also may have been the oldest World War II veteran in the world but that’s not confirmed.”

Young said they have not yet identified the next-oldest veteran.

In 2020, Gov. Larry Hogan’s office called Ezra Hill Sr. the oldest living veteran in Maryland, and the second-oldest in the United States. He told Hogan the secret to his long life is to keep calm and not hate anyone.

Ezra Hill Jr. called his dad a patriot and remembers him as someone who watched MSNBC, the Orioles and the Baltimore Ravens. Although he was a Republican, he did not like former president Donald Trump. He liked being kept aware of the issues and was critical of the January 6 riots at the Capitol.

“Having fought the autocracy in the ’40s, he could see it coming again,” his son said.

He also remembered his dad as a hard worker and good friend.

“If you were painting a house, he’d help you paint the house,” Ezra Hill Jr. said. “He considered himself a man who could do things, who could build things, who could get things done. That was the type of person he was.”

He said during his dad’s last days, there was an overwhelming sense of love they felt because he was a man who really loved his family.

Doris Hill said she was with her former husband before he died in the Loch Raven VA Medical Center’s hospice. When he saw her, he smiled.

“I’ve never seen such a smile that lit up his entire face,” she said.

Doris Hill said she asked her former husband if he knew who he was talking to. He told her, “his wife.”

“I was always his wife,” she said.