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BOWLING GREEN - Gerald Bruce Hills held his granddaughter's 4-year-old hand and walked her to her first day of school in kindergarten nearly two decades ago.
And he did it again on every first day of school after that.
"He took me in at the age of 4; he's been my mom and dad all in one," Amanda Hills, 23, a senior at Bowling Green State University, said. "He worked his whole life to put me through college."
Yesterday, Ms. Hills was given the chance to thank her 77-year-old grandfather publicly.
Nominated by his granddaughter as the university's "Parent of the Year," Mr. Hills was honored this weekend for his involvement in Ms. Hills' college endeavors. Chosen from about 50 nominations, the Findlay resident was awarded the honor by a committee of students, staff, and faculty members.
Although his health kept him from receiving the plaque at halftime during the BGSU-Central Michigan University football game yesterday, Mr. Hills said he was pleased with the honor and extremely proud of his granddaughter.
"I thought, 'Isn't that something,'•" he said yesterday via cell phone from the nursing home where he lives.
For more than a decade, BGSU has named a Parent of the Year. The chosen parent is honored during the university's annual family weekend.
That parent is given free accommodations at a local hotel, tickets to the weekend's football game, and a basket full of Falcons goodies.
Denny Bubrig, assistant dean of students, said the award was established to recognize how important family is to an individual student's academic career. Students interested in nominating their parents are asked to submit short essays, he said.
The community uses the students' words to choose an honoree, he said.
"It's been a unique situation. We've never had a situation quite like this where it has been a grandparent that has been such an important part of a student's life," Mr. Bubrig said.
Ms. Hills' essay for the committee shows just how important her grandfather has been.
"My grandpa has been my sole support system since he took me in at the age of 4 and walked me to my first day of kindergarten. I will be graduating on his birthday. He considers this the greatest gift of his life," Ms. Hills wrote.
"Each day he tells me the reason he gets up is to live for me, to see me get my PhD, and help those in need, just as he did and taught me to."
Her maternal grandfather, Mr. Hills took in his granddaughter because his daughter was very young when she became a mother. He raised the young girl on his own.
Mr. Hills worked at the YMCA for most of his life, Ms. Hills said. It was a place that Ms. Hills said she ended up spending most of her spare time.
And to help ensure that he could send his granddaughter to college, Mr. Hills worked a second job at a car dealership.
They were jobs he eventually had to give up when poor health required that he be placed in a Findlay nursing home.
Even then, he stressed the importance of education.
"Education has always been something important to me, probably because I didn't have any. I never had the chance. Back then, in those days, nobody could afford it," Mr. Hills said. "I'm very proud of [Amanda], I can't explain it. She's always been such a good girl, she never caused any problems."
Ms. Hills said her grandfather is scheduled to attend a brunch today in the student union.
There, she intends to share some words about the impact he has made in her life.
With a degree in art history and a minor in peace and conflict studies, Ms. Hills said she hopes to continue her education at BGSU and obtain a master's degree. She plans to earn her PhD, she said.
But her ultimate goal, Ms. Hills said, is to start an organization one day in her grandfather's name that helps others in some way. Because helping, she said, is what he is all about.
"Now that I'm going to school, I consider education and my grandfather the two greatest things in my life - the two things that I cannot live without," she said.
"My grandfather never talks about himself, he never committed any act of hubris," she added.
"It was a chance for me to show him how much he is loved."
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