Adam Hill: The Jersey Whirlwind

SLO County District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill passed away on August 6 at the age of 54.

Hill, who endured a lifelong battle of depression, was an exuberant, compassionate, combative, pugnacious whirlwind from New Jersey. He was undoubtedly an iconoclast who reveled in spontaneity, academia, rigorous debate and social justice. Hill was undoubtedly a flawed man, but he was candid about his flaws in ways that helped others accept the flaws within themselves. He used his position as county supervisor and a mental health advocate to help reignite a conversation about mental health struggles.

Before he became county supervisor, Hill taught literature and writing at Cal Poly for 13 years. He was a young, passionate and deeply intelligent teacher who loved to connect with his students and introduce them to new authors and ideas at every opportunity. Over the years, Hill kept in touch with many of his students and mentored them. To his students, he was more than a teacher. He was a friend who wanted nothing more than to see them grow and evolve beyond his wildest expectations.

Not bad for a Jersey boy, who worked his way through undergraduate and graduate schools. Hill received a B.A. in Government from the University of Maryland, his M.A. in English from Fresno State, and his M.F.A. in Writing from Louisiana State University. Then he moved to SLO County in 1995 and never looked back.

Hill was also a tireless advocate for the homeless. Known for his work at the SLO County Food Bank and securing much-needed funding for our county’s homeless services, Hill dedicated his time to serving a community that residents don’t actively think about or react favorably to. Hill never forgot about them partly because he recognized the distinct parallels between the mental health struggles they faced and his own. He would see past their difficulties and spend time nurturing a deep, empathetic connection with them.

When I interacted with Hill, I made sure to extend the same courtesy to him. Early on, we’d get into some digital skirmishes. He sometimes wouldn’t like what I wrote about him or his policy positions. Once in a while, he would even lash out, but it didn’t faze me. I recognized his worth and his heart. I would be lying to you if I said it wasn’t difficult to develop a trusting relationship. It certainly took a while to peel away the complex layers of his spirited and oftentimes rigid personality to get to his tender, jazz-loving soul. But when I was able to talk to him and have honest conversations, it was worth it.

Meanwhile, I’d see people interact with him and react in real-time to his wild but superficial salvos, get understandably frustrated and walk away. That would serve as a sobering allegory of our failing mental health system. We knew that deep inside, there was a person who’s actually kind, funny, charming, and wanted to be appreciated. But it’s hard to reach that person without enduring their suffering.

Luckily, I went on that journey with him.

It was around 2013 when I connected with Hill. At the time, the website CalCoastNews and radio show host Dave Congalton was regularly publishing unsubstantiated allegations with such intensity and frequency that I wanted to fact-check them. I was a reporter at the time. But I told Hill I could only do that if he trusted me enough to answer questions and participate in a process that had potentially embarrassing and explosive consequences for him and those around him. To my surprise, he agreed.

Here’s what happened.

We had a supervisor whose flammable candor and whimsical quips made him uniquely susceptible to sensationalism and tabloid fodder. Perhaps at one point, there was a kernel of truth about him that was broadcast and disseminated through social media. And he generated controversy over his remarks one, two, a few… well, several times. He wasn’t going to let hatred and callousness dilute the public process and progress. He refused to let lies, misinformation and partisanship permeate civil discourse and impact the social changes he spent decades fighting for. He did not hesitate to put his foot down. But the act of putting his foot down and the way he put his foot down rankled CalCoastNews.

But rarely did these purveyors of false news stories make any sort of concerted effort to assess the kind of man he was. Instead, they focused heavily on what they thought their audience would believe, given his temperament and statements.

Clearly, Hill was a lot more than the conspiracy theories they laid at his feet and the attacks they levied on his family, friends, campaign supporters, and anyone who had the sheer audacity of publicly agreeing with him. He was more than the unflattering, doctored photos and ominous campaign ads from anonymous agitators. He was more than the bigoted and disturbing robocalls from Kevin P. Rice, who apparently cosplayed as white supremacists and called his stunt “satire” once the District Attorney announced he was investigating his robocall.

The adversity and hostility Hill endured for nearly a decade was unprecedented for political campaigns. And worse, it was personal. Because it was personal, it was easier to trace the source.

Most of that nefarious activity would ultimately be traced back to Karen Velie, co-founder of CalCoastNews. Velie was also a former student of Hill’s when he taught at Cal Poly and he would sometimes counsel her about her own mental health challenges. She would later become one of his most persistent adversaries, routinely blaming him for her personal problems and filing frivolous lawsuits against him. Her most recent act of cruelty was publishing a false claim about the manner of his untimely death, sensationalizing the end of a man who was far more sensational than they could ever be.

Hill’s critics would say that he shouldn’t have served as a supervisor. They’re probably right in a sense that he couldn’t be confined to that traditional box. Based on their extensive contempt for him that ventured far beyond politics, I don’t think Hill could’ve ever adhered to their standards.

To be honest, it wasn’t in his DNA to be a dignified statesman of the board. He redefined what it meant to be supervisor and forged his own path by charging into the political debate, taking on all challengers and taking no prisoners. He would take the wind out of his adversaries, leaving them breathless and unable to have any sort of meaningful counter-response. He was such a force to be reckoned with, his adversaries would retreat to the shadows and attack him from the darkness because they feared his light. Since they couldn’t fight fair, they resorted to bringing out the worst of their ilk to attack him from the darkness. That’s how powerful Hill was.

As a testament to his power, a majority of voters saw past his torment, the lies and innuendo, recognized his heart and re-elected him for his fourth term in office.

From time to time I was compared to Hill. Both of us were heavily into literature, political philosophy and academics. But we also liked to get into trouble. We got into trouble by pushing back against dark forces — sometimes in a hamfisted way— and suffered the consequences. We had common adversaries. We were bound together by the demonstrably false allegation that he and I were involved in some elaborate conspiracy to “shut down” those adversaries. One time, we spoke about our similarities on the phone.

“Guess I’m a lot like you,” I said.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” he quipped with his trademark deadpan humor.

Though we weren’t conspiring, we did speak regularly about our experiences and shared hardship. Certainly, Hill had his convictions. He knew what was true about himself and knew the importance of taking a stand. After all, that’s what he was known for. But he was often portrayed by these dark forces as a living caricature, a megalomaniac, bully and irredeemably defective. Hill was deeply concerned about people continuing to paint that caricature for the rest of his life. After a while, he started wondering aloud if that caricature was actually true.

“This is the kind of bullshit that would drive someone to suicide,” he told me.

Because that’s what depression does. When people constantly, personally attack someone for an extended period of time, the recipient of those attacks has to cope with a growing sense of helplessness that feels insurmountable, regardless of assurances that everything would eventually be okay. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am terrible. And sure, there’s the initial resistance and pushback, but the voluminous nature of these attacks was difficult for him to bear. Hill internalized it and let it fester, despite telling his friends and supporters that he would move on.

I could hear it in his voice. As years passed, the boisterous scholar whose voice could cut through a crowded chambers became more withdrawn, sullen and soft-spoken. Even though he was candid about his depression, I don’t think a lot of people realized the extent of his emotional toll.

We know that anyone in his shoes would feel terrible if they were harassed, stalked and threatened on a continuous basis. But because of his depression, it was suffocating.

A lot of these attacks came from self-proclaimed “reporters” who attacked him under the faulty auspices of journalism. He wasn’t just dealing with disturbed people with political grudges. He was dealing with people who made definitive declarations about the kind of person he was and tried solidifying that narrative as a matter of record.

When they tried doing that to me, I wrote a book and sought catharsis. But Hill wasn’t able to.

And yes, part of being in public service is having tough skin. But Hill was undoubtedly a uniquely vulnerable target for abuse. His abusers knew that. That’s why they continued their abusive behavior for nearly a decade and through his suicide attempt in March, even mocking him for not “finishing the job” and his wife for looking out for him. Even if half of what they’ve accused him of was true, that still did not justify their inhumanity.

Honestly, I did not want to write about these people, but there needs to be accountability when it comes to how we address mental health and those experiencing mental health struggles. We also need to hold those accountable for exploiting the mental health struggles of others for personal and financial gain.

We can honor Hill’s memory by not only providing accountability, but also by working together to support and expand mental health services; by ensuring that homeless services are consistently and fully funded; by standing up for the truth in a post-truth era; by supporting a friend or a loved one in a time of need.

Adam Hill’s legacy shouldn’t be defined by his suffering. He should be remembered as an exceptional life, a shining example of standing up for the forgotten and overcoming complacency with loud courage.

His life gave us faith in the concept of leading a community with boldness while acknowledging imperfection. His life showed us that leaders in pain can use that pain to connect to their communities in deeply full filling ways. And if someone like Adam Hill can survive and live to fight another day on the battlefield of justice and truth, so can we.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1–800–273–8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741–741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

Marketing entrepreneur and columnist from Morro Bay, California.

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