Ipswich lost a great friend recently with the death of Howard “Taffy” Hill. Memories poured forth as residents learned he had passed away at the age of 87 on March 26, 2011. Hill was a familiar sight at his near iconic store on Market Street, in operation since 1929 when it was opened by his father as Hill’s Men’s Store.
Over the years it became the go-to place for family clothing, work gear, footwear—if it went on the body, Hill’s probably had it. People from all over the North Shore shopped at Hill’s.
But for Ipswich residents, Hill’s wasn’t just a family store, the Hills were family, and Hill embraced Ipswich and beyond as his family.
Selectman Chairman Charlie Surpitski said, “Taffy was one of the kindest, most generous persons I have ever known. Much of what he did for residents of this community was unheralded and behind the scenes. He opened his heart and his store to help others in need. He was a jewel that will be missed.”
Ipswich resident Ann Fessenden recalled when her sister and roommate lost everything in an apartment fire in the mid 1980’s. “The next day I went to Hill’s and got a couple of gift certificates so they could get some clothes. I was telling the cashier about the fire and Taffy overheard me. He then went behind the counter and gave me two $100 gift certificates. I’ve heard stories of him doing this many times to help people like my sister,” she said.
Former police chief Gavin Keenan recalled going to Hill’s to get outfitted for the St. Stanislaus parochial school on Washington Street. Hill helped the “French School” moms fit their youngsters with white shirts, blue jumpers for the girls, blue corduroy pants for the boys, and the special necktie which designated their grade. Blue socks and black Buster Brown shoes completed the uniform.
“All items were in stock at Hill’s with personal attention by Taffy himself. He was always a cheerful presence and a great salesperson,” Keenan said.
Later when Keenan went to the Police Academy for basic training, he got his required gear at Hill’s. “It must have been good stuff, ‘cause it passed muster with the Troopers at the State Police Academy,” he said.
Keenan recalled brisk business at the store when he was a young Ipswich cop. “Taffy would hire police details to manage the crowd gathered on the sidewalk waiting their turn to get in. It was a good detail, as Taffy would make sure that you got a coffee from Marty’s to warm up. Taffy was always pleasant to his customers and staff,” he said.
Former Chronicle owner Bill Wasserman remembered Hill from the political arena. “He was the political honcho in town for the Republicans,” he recalled. A Democrat himself, Wasserman said he admired Hill for creating his own political machine with phone lists and well-organized campaigns. “I knew a master when I saw one,” Wasserman said, adding that he helped elect a number of Republican officials over the years, including his son Brad Hill, a state representative.
Brad Hill said in his eulogy for his father that one thing his dad advised him was, “Keep it short, no one wants to hear the politician talk, they just want to eat, see their friends, and go home.”
One of Hill’s passions was his license plate collection, with many of them studding the rafters and walls of the store. After fire destroyed the store in 1980, he was relieved when he retrieved his most valued plate, the oldest commercial plate in the country, according to his son Brad.
Resident David Wallace, former manager of Richdale’s, recalled Hill’s interest in Ipswich history. “He had tons of old pictures and used to come into Richdales and show them to me with detailed explanation,” he said. He added that Hill often displayed his collection in various storefronts throughout town.
Hill’s interest in history carried over to his love for old cars. Every Ipswich parade usually featured Hill with his wife Virginia in his 1913 Model T.
He was honored over the years as Rotary Person of the Year, Republican of the Year by the Republican Town Committee, and was featured in a military magazine article titled, “One of Those Who Made It All Possible,” which described his service as a crew chief in the 752nd Squadron, 458th Bomb Group during World War II. He was responsible for keeping the B-24 “Final Approach” in the air for 113 missions until it was finally felled by flak over Lechfeld, Germany in 1945. Hill was awarded the Bronze Star for his service.
He was also featured in the Ipswich Chronicle series “Unsung Hero” in 1992.
In the article, Hill downplayed his generosity, saying he just wanted to feed his family, not become a billionaire. “What you give, you get back double,” he said.
Gavin Keenan thoughtfully observed, “Taffy was a good man with quite a war record. I find it ironic that he was a resident of the now defunct Caldwell Nursing Home at the end of his life. Both have passed, and a little more of the old town fabric has been frayed.”