In concert halls, classrooms, classy restaurants and the den of his own Stanton Heights home, Dr. Ralph L. Hill was a familiar local musician for decades, typically in a natty suit at a baby grand piano playing classical, jazz, ragtime, spiritual, show tunes and other compositions from a wide-ranging repertoire.
The longtime Pittsburgh Public Schools music educator spent years entertaining diners at LeMont and the Grand Concourse restaurants and shoppers at area malls, and directed a number of musical groups, including the Sounds of Heritage, who traveled across the country singing African-American spirituals. Late in life, he became an ordained minister, serving congregations in Beaver County.
The friendly, dignified gentleman known to some simply as "Doc" died Tuesday at home of complications from lung cancer. He was 72.
The students, peers and music lovers whom Dr. Hill either educated or entertained locally in his upbeat manner since the 1960s would easily tally in the thousands.
"People went out of their way to come see him," said Tony Fratangelo, a waiters captain at LeMont on Mount Washington, where Dr. Hill sometimes played as often as five nights a week. "He made people feel like they were his best friend. He was really personable, and great with kids."
He started teaching music in city schools in 1968, serving full-time stints at Milliones, Schenley, Carrick and Oliver schools through 1994 and part-time service elsewhere up until weeks ago. His passion was instilling in young people the same exuberance for music with which he grew up. That education included private lessons for many in his home. In the schools, he would lead bands, choirs and other vocal groups.
"He was a strong disciplinarian, but you couldn't ask for anybody who had more love for people," said Dr. James Alston, curriculum supervisor for music for Pittsburgh Public Schools.
In a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette profile in 1997, Dr. Hill remembered his own childhood in the Hill District as one in which he was viewed as an oddball by other boys, because he loved music more than sports. He was self-taught on the piano, and required no sheet music to play the songs of Stephen Foster as a boy or hundreds of other composers of all types as an adult.
A mischievous lack of discipline when young got him kicked out of two city schools. He credited a turnaround in his life to an Army stint in Virginia, served near a black Christian college, Hampton Institute, where he saw educated, proud students and professors of his color as role models. He went on to obtain a bachelor's degree from Norfolk State University, and then a master's degree in music education from Carnegie Mellon University in 1969 and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973.
During the teaching career that followed, Dr. Hill also founded the Sounds of Heritage, became local director of the National Negro Opera Foundation and was a frequent lecturer and performer at universities, at celebrations of black music, at festivals of Stephen Foster's songs and numerous other occasions. He was frequently on the radio, and played harpsichord as well as piano at public performances.
Long devoted to religion and to music of the church, he was ordained by Moody Bible School in Chicago in 1989. He served as pastor of Second Baptist Church in Rochester and Greater Emmanuel AME Zion Church in Aliquippa before his health slowed him down.
Dr. Hill was part of a large family, infusing younger siblings with a love for the music of Beethoven, Scott Joplin and other artists they would have been unlikely to know without him.
"When he sat down at that piano, it was a treat for everybody," said his sister, Adrienne Young of Garfield.
In addition to her, he is survived by his wife, Karen, and daughter, Zipporah, of Stanton Heights; three brothers, Clarence Hill Jr. of the Hill District, Charles G. Hill of Wichita, Kan., and Douglas Anderson of Oakland; three other sisters, Ruth Carter of Chicago, Melanie Hill Hall of the West End and Victoria Garth of Homestead; and one grandson.
A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. today at Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, 1000 Bryn Mawr Road, Hill District, followed by burial in Allegheny Cemetery.
Gary Rotstein can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1255.