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He called himself Brother Blue, but he was perhaps best known for his passionate, uplifting storytelling, sensitive ear and mentoring of other raconteurs throughout Boston and Cambridge.
Hugh Morgan Hill, an internationally renowned performance artist and unofficial storyteller of both Cambridge and Boston, died in his Cambridge home after a brief illness on Tuesday. He was 88.
“He believed deeply in the medium of storytelling because it brought people together, and he was delighted to be around others who liked to tell stories,” said Jay O’Callahan, a storyteller from Marshfield.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Dr. Hill served in the army in both Europe and Asia from 1943-1946, during World War II, and was honorably discharged as a first lieutenant.
He then earned his bachelor’s degree in social relations from Harvard University, a master’s of fine arts in playwrighting from Yale School of Drama and a doctorate in storytelling from Union Graduate School, which was a collaborative initiative between Harvard and Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.
He started his career as a storyteller in the late 1960s, when he traveled to prisons throughout the state with his wife Ruth Edmonds Hill. According to family friend and storyteller Laura Packer of Malden, he changed his name to Brother Blue to have a catchy moniker that would help him connect with the prisoners he encountered.
He was not above playing the jester, she said. “It was important to him to be eccentric and be the fool in the room to grab attention, so others would feel comfortable being a fool too.”
Dr. Hill also was known for the trademark butterfly painted on his face and hands. Packer said the butterfly represented his late brother Tommy, who was plagued by mental retardation. Growing up, Tommy was fascinated by butterflies and had a sense of humanity Dr. Hill thought many lacked. Dr. Hill spoke often about his brother, who died young but lived freely, like a butterfly – beautiful and delicate.
Over the years, Dr. Hill became a Cambridge personality with his eccentric blue attire and provocative storytelling in and around Harvard and Central Squares, as well as at festivals and workshops.
Packer first met Dr. Hill in Harvard Square in 1986, and said the meeting changed her life, helping her realize storytelling also was her calling.
“I was just mesmerized by him,” she said. “He told me once ‘You have the power,’ and that was it for me."
Packer also recalled a time when Dr. Hill and his wife were in a Cambridge café and a homeless man came to them, pleading for money to take a bus home to New Hampshire. Dr. Hill was so inspired by the man’s story of hardship, that he had a hat passed around so patrons could contribute to the man’s bus fare.
For other narrators of the nature of things plain, simple and complex, Dr. Hill was a centerpiece in the local community.
Dr. Hill made such an impression that Warren Leher followed his 1995 biography, “Brother Blue: A Narrative Portrait of Brother Blue A.K.A. Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill” with “Ahhhh! A Tribute to Brother Blue and Ruth Edmonds Hill," which was released in 2003.
The latter was published by Somerville's Yellow Moon Press and is a compilation of stories, poems and photos submitted by area poets, writers and artists and dedicated to the Hills.
Dr. Hill also received many international awards for his art.
Fellow storyteller Kevin Brooks of Malden was inspired by Dr. Hill while a student at MIT. He described him as the father of modern storytelling, someone who sometimes walked around Harvard Square barefoot.
Brooks recalled the way Dr. Hill attracted others during a Shakespearean storytelling event at MIT. At first, most of the audience appeared ambivalent toward the elderly man dressed in blue, but they quickly became engaged when he invited audience members on stage to participate with him.
“The students were speechless,” Brooks said. “After the performance, people just surrounded him, wanting to know more about him. He lived his life as a storyteller, and taught others how to live their lives as well.”
His wife said he made his living telling stories. He didn't have a "standard job," she said.
On Tuesday afternoon, shortly before he died, she said he told her a love story.
"He was a generous and kind man, who cared about others."
In addition to his wife, Dr. Hill leaves his sister, Beatrice of Streetsborough, Ohio, a niece, and a nephew.
A brief service is planned on Monday at 1 p.m. at the Pittsfield Cemetery. A memorial service is being planned for a later date.
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