Obituaries

Jean Hill, who led Concord’s plastic bottle-ban effort, dies at 90

Mrs. Hill’s efforts drew criticism from residents and tourists who liked the convenience of buying single-serving water bottles.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File 2010
Mrs. Hill’s efforts drew criticism from residents and tourists who liked the convenience of buying single-serving water bottles.

Partway through her attempts to get her hometown of Concord to ban the sale of single-serving plastic water bottles, Jean Hill paused to explain her disdain. She was in her 80s, a grandmother, and very direct.

“Bottled water is a scam,” she told the Globe in September 2012. “Anyone with a brain in their head knows that.”

Drawing international attention and inspiring imitators across the country, Mrs. Hill succeeded the following year in leading Concord to become the first community in the nation to ban those disposable bottles. She was 90 when she died in her sleep Nov. 5 in the Harbor House skilled care home in Hingham, where she had moved several months ago after living in Concord for 50 years.

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“She really had the strength of her own conviction,” said Jill Appel, her friend and campaign manager for the ban. “She didn’t wilt in the face of adversity. She was out there.”

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Several years ago, Mrs. Hill was inspired to challenge the habits of bottled-water drinkers, and to take on a multibillion-dollar industry, after her 10-year-old grandson described what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to National Geographic magazine’s website, much of the mass of debris floating in the ocean is made up of water bottles, bottle caps, and Styrofoam cups.

“He said, ‘You know, grandma, there are big things circling around in the water that are as big as Texas and they’re full of plastic trash,’ ” she told WGBH News, adding that “there is a fish called a lanternfish that eats it. Then it gets into the food chain.”

Early into her campaign, Mrs. Hill was depicted in media accounts as a latter-day Thoreau, taking on the establishment in Concord, a community that annually draws throngs of visitors to Walden Pond.

“She’s the classic Concordian who conceives of an idea and doesn’t take no for an answer,” Christopher Whelan, Concord’s town manager, told The New York Times in 2010. “She’s a strong-willed citizen who is very committed to the environment, so in a lot of ways she’s typical of this place.”

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Nevertheless, her efforts drew criticism from residents and tourists who liked the convenience of buying single-serving water bottles, stores that welcomed the revenue from selling those items, and industry groups that poured money into opposing the ban.

“Oh, I know, this little old lady in tennis shoes butting into everyone’s business,” she told the Times in 2010. “It’s annoying and it’s not true. I’m not meddling; I’m trying to accomplish a legitimate goal.”

And she did, though it took a few tries. Then the ban had to survive a couple of challenges.

“Jean started the campaign all by herself in 2010,” Appel recalled. “I joined her in 2011. We started an organization called Concord on Tap.”

She added that “the words that come to mind when I think of Jean are ‘indomitable spirit.’ She was always pleasant and positive. And she was extremely persistent. She never gave up.”

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Concord approved a ban at Town Meeting in 2010, but the state attorney general’s office rejected the measure because of its wording. A rewritten version narrowly failed at Town Meeting in 2011, and then was approved by a comfortable margin in 2012. The following year, two repeal efforts failed.

“It made me feel so good,” Mrs. Hill told the Globe in 2013, after voters rejected the second repeal measure. “So many people came and patted me on the back. I really feel at the age of 86 that I’ve really accomplished something.”

Born in New York City, Jean Hosie was a daughter of Myles Hosie and the former Gertrude Murphy, and grew up in Queens Village in the Borough of Queens, N.Y.

Her father was a police officer and drove a radio car. “He gardened, sewed, and hunted deer as well,” said Mrs. Hill’s son Will of Acton. “She loved her father very much. She’d need something done, and he’d do it.”

She graduated from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, and while still a student during World War II she worked in a parachute factory, where she advocated for paid vacations for workers. “They brushed me off because they thought I was a smart aleck kid,” she said in an interview for the Concord on Tap website. “This was my first attempt at speaking out against injustice.”

After graduating with an associate’s degree from what was then Vermont Junior College in Montpelier, she worked at Vogue and Time magazines, and then moved to Boston for a job at the Atlantic Monthly. While on a mountain climbing trip with friends she met John W. Hill Jr., who later worked as a consultant and sold large electronic printing equipment.

She married Hill in 1952 and their family lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chicago’s suburbs before settling in Concord in 1967. When their four children were well into school, she returned to college, graduated with a bachelor’s in English from Northeastern University, and worked for many years as an editor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory.

Mrs. Hill’s husband died in 2006, a few years before she began the bottle-ban efforts. She said that with that campaign, she wanted to “fire the second shot heard round the world” — an allusion to a famous line in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 poem “Concord Hymn,” about the Revolutionary War’s Battles of Lexington and Concord.

“There’s no reason for bottled water,” she told the Globe. “If someone needs to carry water with them, they can use a reusable bottle. If they really insist on buying it, they can go to another town.”

Her straightforward wisdom enlivened “Divide in Concord,” an award-winning 2014 documentary about Concord’s bottle-ban battle. The following year, she and Appel shared an Environmental Merit Award from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

In a 2012 Globe interview, she said she started her crusade with her grandchildren in mind. “I don’t want them to live in a world full of trash,” she said.

“I think people are beginning to realize there is more to life than convenience,” Mrs. Hill added. “We have to respect the planet.”

In addition to her son Will, Mrs. Hill leaves two other sons, John H. II of Jamaica Plain and Myles of Hingham, her daughter, Molly of New York City; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday in First Parish in Concord.

“There are many towns in Massachusetts and elsewhere that have been inspired by her actions to take a stand against bottled water,” Appel said. “It was such a pleasure to have known her and worked with her.”

Mrs. Hill “was a tough customer,” Will said.

Though “she came from very humble beginnings,” he added, “for a moment in time — in her 80s with the bottle ban — she made corporations and people act and think differently about how they treat the planet. I think that’s an American story.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.