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Looking back on life as a volunteer

Viola Hill has walked many miles in her 90-plus years. A widow and mother of four, she spent much of her time as a community volunteer -- walking door to door collecting for the March of Dimes, United Way, YMCA Youth Board and Well Baby Clinic.

For more than 70 years Hill resided at A.D. Price Courts on Buffalo's East Side. Formerly known as Willert Park Court Apartments, the complex was built in 1939 by the U.S. Housing Authority.

Hill also worked as an aide to former Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve. In 2008, she was given the Sojourner Truth Award from the Buffalo branch of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Club. It is the organization's highest honor.

People Talk: You survived the Depression.

Viola Hill: My mother was sick, so I had to come out of school at 16 to do domestic work. I could work good because I already did the work at home. In those days everybody -- even the white kids -- had to work at home.

PT: Your memory is sharp.

VH: You're not the only person who kind of told me that. Why shouldn't I have a good memory? I've forgotten a whole lot of stuff, like I was telling Mr. Eve. You've heard of Arthur Eve. He calls me every day. He wants to know how I am.

PT: He's a friend.

VH: Yes, and I've always admired him, like I admire Martin Luther King, because those people were forceful. They did things I couldn't do. That's not my style. I don't like to agitate people.

PT: But you did like to volunteer.

VH: We were young then, in our early 20s. My uniform was penny loafers and an old skirt. People would tell me they always saw me walking and walking. Every spring was the cancer fund. I stood with a can on the corner of Jefferson and William. The one time I collected for the Buffalo Philharmonic, there was a terrible blizzard.

PT: You also volunteered with the Buffalo Challenger?

VH: I did the copy reading, swept the floor, cleaned the toilet -- and everything. I always wound up cleaning toilets everywhere I went. I delivered the Challenger, too. I delivered the papers like I was 16, and I was in my 40s. I had to hop out at every beer tavern, every store. I did that for years.

PT: Did you ever say no to anyone who asked you to volunteer?

VH: When I was in the hospital for an operation -- in 1968, I think it was. I was active with the Parent Teacher Association, too. Volunteering is another education. The only thing I do now is maybe something for the church.

PT: What other jobs did you have?

VH: I made airplanes at Curtiss-Wright. We were taught how to use the machines at the old vocational school on the corner of High and Genesee. They taught us how to use a drill and about rivets. You were either a fitter or a riveter. I was a fitter. We put the C-46 [Commando] together from scratch. I stayed there three months straight, but the chemicals in the war plant ate at my skin so I had to leave.

PT: What do you recall about working in the war plant?

VH: They didn't pay us the same amount of money per hour that they paid the men, and we were working side by side. We got 15 to 20 cents less an hour. And they didn't allow the women to smoke in the bathroom. The men could.

PT: What do you think about the youth of today?

VH: When I was coming up, we didn't have this type of behavior. Women could walk the streets at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning. The whole time I was in grammar school I never saw bad behavior, but when people start making that money, they start indulging their children and stop teaching them the values. See, that's when everything goes -- and children have babies. I saw it all, and it's a shame. We had to obey. We weren't going around cussing and disrespecting ourselves.

PT: What kind of a parent were you?

VH: I wasn't strict, I was lenient, but they couldn't race and run around the streets like a lot of other kids. When they were older, I'd let them go roller skating, and they had the dancing at the Dellwood [Ballroom] at Main and Utica.

PT: How has Buffalo changed?

VH: We lost our tax base. After World War II, the plants moved down south. White flight had something to do with it.

PT: What's the last book you've read?

VH: I don't have too much time to read a whole book, but I save all the newspaper editorials.

PT: How's your health?

VH: Good, I guess, for my age. When I got in my 70s and 80s, high blood pressure kicked in. I never took an aspirin in my life. I never had headaches. I never had stomachaches. My mother was a diabetic, so I always watched what I ate.

PT: What is the key to your longevity?

VH: I was thinking about that the other day. Most people my age have knee trouble, but I don't. I guess all that walking I did paid off.