25 years after tragedy, Oswego remembers Don Hill

Above, the hearse carrying Oswego City Police Department Lieutenant Donald R. Hill turns onto East Utica Street from East Fourth Street while flanked by the officer pallbearers during his funeral procession in 1995.

OPD lieutenant was struck by vehicle and killed on duty Nov. 11, 1995

OSWEGO — Today marks the 25th anniversary of the tragic death of Oswego Police Department Lieutenant Donald R. Hill, who lives on eternally in downtown Oswego and the memories of those who loved him.

Hill was 43 years old and a 20-year member of the Oswego Police Department (OPD) when he was killed by a 19-year-old driver during traffic duty on the east side of Oswego. The driver wasn’t charged and Hill’s death was ruled an accident. The suddenness of the loss compounded his friends’ and family’s grief. Contemporary reports said Hill was just months from retirement.

Port City officials are marking the occasion, and Hill’s name is immortalized in one of downtown Oswego’s most traversed areas.

"The city of Oswego pauses to remember the untimely line of duty death of Lieutenant Don Hill,” said Mayor Billy Barlow. “His contributions to our community left an indelible mark that will never be forgotten."

In 2015, Mayor Tom Gillen and the Common Council — containing a then-counselor Barlow, R-5th Ward — dedicated the public space between City Hall and OPD headquarters/Oswego City Court as Donald R. Hill Memorial Plaza.

The plaza is outfitted with fountains, custom stonework and seasonal plants. It’s a common gathering place for civic events and a cherished hangout for children during the summer months’ farmers’ markets.

Minetto Town Justice Ken Auyer served with Hill and described him as a “great guy and great boss,” who taught the young police officers under his charge valuable lessons about “always thinking things through.”

Auyer was a young cop when he, Hill and other police personnel were going on a drug raid.

“We got warrants and we’re ready to bust down the door,” Auyer told The Palladium-Times.

Hang on, Hill said. Try the knob.

“We looked at him like, what are you, nuts?” Auyer remembers.

Sure enough, the door was unlocked and the police entered without having to “boot down a door,” which was a big deal at the time.

“That’s the way he always was, even mannered. Some of us were young and didn’t always think, but he did,” Auyer said.

The day he died, Hill volunteered for his final assignment.

“He was the lieutenant and could’ve given it to anyone else, but was the kind of guy that worked the detail and wanted to go out and do it,” Auyer said.

Oswego’s John DeLapp retired as a lieutenant in 2008 after 21 years on the force and was part of the responding personnel when Hill’s injuries were called in. DeLapp remembers it was “completely devastating” for him and the entire department.

“It was like somebody just gutted you,” DeLapp said of arriving at the scene of the accident. “A lot of us drove right down to the hospital when we were relieved and we all waited. Devastating.”

DeLapp said Hill was “very fair and stayed calm” when supervising sergeants and officers as part of his lieutenant duties. Hill had a great sense of humor, DeLapp said, and was always willing to help.

“There’s not a bad word to be said about him. An absolute family man. Don was always about doing the right thing, no matter what,” DeLapp said. One time, that willingness to help was put to effective targeted use — Hill introduced DeLapp to the woman who would eventually become DeLapp’s wife.

“Don was a great, cheerful guy who always found the good in things,” DeLapp said. “He tried to give people a chance out in public but when it came time to be a policeman, he was definitely a policeman.”

Matt Coffee was an OPD sergeant at the time of Hill’s death, as well as president of the Lake City Police Club union and remembers thinking it was a “normal call” coming through on Nov. 11, 1995.

“He was struck by a car on a bright sunny day — that's not the way it's supposed to happen,” Coffey told The Palladium-Times. “We all know it could happen, but not that way.”

For Hill’s funeral, Coffey was a member of the service line of duty where he and others marched as the solemn honor guard alongside the hearse and casket. Pictures from 1995 show a long line of vehicles and individuals participating and observing the funerary procession along Oswego city streets, and Coffey remembers “hundreds and hundreds” of fellow officers at the ceremony.

OPD Chief Phil Cady said Tuesday his department was remembering a good man, good friend and good cop.

"On the anniversary of Lt. Don Hill's line of duty death, the Oswego Police Department remembers his sacrifice and service to the Oswego community,” Cady said. “Don was a well-respected husband, father and police officer. His dedication to our community will never be forgotten"

Retired OPD Lieutenant Ford Babcock was another officer who was close to Hill and recalls his friend and colleague’s ability to solve problems.

“Though not large in stature, Don make up for it with his calm and easy-going demeanor. He dealt with people using his ability to relate to others and with common sense,” Babcock said. “Don was the ultimate family man, dedicated to putting them before anything else. He was my fellow brother-in-arms but more importantly, he was my friend and I’ll always miss him.”

On the wall of the Oswego Police Department hangs a framed set of guidelines known as “Don’s Code of Life.” The contents follow:

Don’s Code of Life

  • Respect your fellow man.
  • Love your families with all your heart.
  • Be honest in your work and do it to the best of your ability.
  • Make us proud of the Oswego City Police Force. Raise it to the level of integrity and respect that it had 10-15 years ago.
  • Stop the ‘petty’ things. There is no room in a Christian life for complaining, bickering, judgementalism and negativity.
  • Don’t be afraid to lean on each other, to seek advice, to give praise when it’s due, to kindly criticize when it is needed.
  • Mourn Don, but make him proud of each and every one of you by your actions, your words, your touch.
  • Let your respect and love for Don and us shine in your hearts and your faces where it will touch everyone you come in contact with.
  • Resurrect the style of the old Policeman’s Ball. That was one of Don’s dreams. We should be proud of who we all are and make the community proud to support us.
  • Keep the families included. I am sad to admit that I don’t know many of you or your families. We need to share the joy of our lives with each other. We need dinners, picnics, games, & parties. We are a family all together and as siblings, we need to love and support each other.
  • The kids and I are so overwhelmed by your show of love for us. I’ve been asked so many times, “What can we do, what do you want?” I have replied, “Continue what you’re doing. Pull together for the common goal. Behave as Don showed us in your work and your lives. I want you to do everything that you feel you need to do to honor him and us. And, most of all, LOVE each other!”
  • Sincerely, Pam, Amy, Tony, Becky  Pam Hill & Family

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