Former Franklin County presiding commissioner and longtime Meramec Valley R-III Superintendent Dr. Ed Hillhouse says he is at peace with his recent diagnosis of liver failure as he waits on the transplant list.
Hillhouse will receive a lifetime achievement award from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments at its annual awards luncheon Nov. 17 for his many contributions to Franklin County and the bi-state region.
Although the recent diagnosis has slowed him down, he is still coming to the office every day.
Monday morning Hillhouse was in his school district office with his cell-phone at arm’s reach waiting for a call from Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“It’s no secret,” Hillhouse said. “They’ve given me about a year. I have good days, but I don’t feel great and I’m tired. Today, I’m at about 50 percent.”
Hillhouse said he was diagnosed about five months ago after visiting his doctor complaining of fatigue and some stomach issues.
“At first they thought it was blood clots in my legs,” he said. “Then after a battery of tests they were going to remove my gall bladder until the surgeon noticed it was a liver issue.”
Hillhouse explained there are A, B and C levels to liver failure and his is level C, which without a transplant, can be a death sentence.
“This has been a long time coming and it turns out it runs in the family,” Hillhouse said. “At one time I tried to run Anheuser-Busch out of business, but I quit that a long time ago.”
Hillhouse has never been a smoker and has the correct blood type, A-positive, to be an excellent candidate for a transplant, but admits he isn’t sure where he ranks on the list.
“I’m too afraid to ask,” he said. “I know I shouldn’t be more than two hours away from Barnes Hospital in St. Louis at any time in case we get the call. I’m ready to feel good again.”
Despite the recent health issues, Hillhouse is still working every day as interim Meramec R-III superintendent and said the district has told him to take it easy and rest whenever he needs to.
Retirement isn’t in his vocabulary and, until recently, the 68-year-old was planning another run at the presiding commissioner seat next year.
“It’s just not my nature to sit back and do nothing,” Hillhouse said. “I’ve been very blessed with the opportunities I’ve been given.”
Educator, superintendent, politician, executive director and superintendent again. These are the many hats worn by Hillhouse over his nearly 50 years in service to the men, women and especially children in Franklin County.
“Titles have never meant much to me,” Hillhouse said. “What mattered was if I made a difference. I’ve left every job liking it as well as when I started.”
Hillhouse added he left each position on his own terms and let his successors know he wouldn’t criticize and welcomed their new decisions or directions.
Hillhouse began his teaching career in Pattonville five decades ago before coming to Meramec R-III first as a teacher, then middle school principal and eventually retiring as superintendent after 30 years. Little did he know, he would step back into the superintendent role nearly 15 years later.
After the untimely death of superintendent Randy George in 2016, the board of education asked Hillhouse to come back on an interim basis to again steer the ship while a national search was conducted for a replacement.
With time on his hands and a love of politics, Hillhouse, then 54, set his eyes on his first elected position and ran for Franklin County presiding commissioner in 2002.
“My wife Shirley has always played a role in my decisions,” Hillhouse said. “I thought I could make a difference using the skills I had developed over a period of time, could help on that job.”
He won the election and set about using his experience with administration and finance to move the county into the new millennium.
“We began working together more and we got stronger,” Hillhouse said. “There were many projects in the county that were ‘Ready, aim, aim, aim’ and they never pulled the trigger.”
Three of the biggest projects and crown jewels of his time as commissioner were the construction of the new government and judicial centers and renovation of the historic courthouse.
“We knew we were going to get criticized,” Hillhouse said. “But, we knew we could do the projects and do bigger things for the county. Those things were worthwhile and made people believe in themselves.”
With the twin county centers complete, attention was turned to the historic courthouse which had been neglected and overcrowded for many years.
Hillhouse said the office of Presiding Judge Gael Wood leaked so bad he had to put out several buckets to catch the leaks when it rained. Hillhouse’s office was directly below the judge’s and he would catch the overflow.
During his time as commissioner, Hillhouse also worked closely with then Sheriff Gary Toelke and used a near tragedy to further strengthen the public’s support of the sheriff’s department and better secure its financial future.
After the kidnapping of Ben Ownby and unexpected locating of Shawn Hornbeck thrust Toelke and Franklin County into the national spotlight, in 2007 voters here approved an additional quarter-cent sales tax for law enforcement, which generates more than $3 million annually.
After two terms as presiding commissioner, Hillhouse was planning on stepping down and pursuing other avenues, when one literally fell in his lap.
As part of his county duties, Hillhouse served on the board of directors of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (EWGW) along with the top executives from each of its eight-member counties.
In 2010, the EWGW group was looking for a new executive director to run the day-to-day operations of the major bistate organization.
“Out of the clear blue, one of the executives said if you’re not running again, I would be a good fit for the position,” Hillhouse said. “We had all been working so well together, so I resigned from the commission a month early and took the position.”
Hillhouse steered the regional organization for the next five years before he decided again to leave on his own terms in 2015.
“There is something to be said for fresh eyes and fresh thoughts,” Hillhouse said. “I’ve had my turns and hopefully left things in good shape, paving a way. If my successors want to make a turn, that’s their decision.”
Despite all of his accomplishments and contributions to Franklin County and the bistate as a whole, Hillhouse said he prefers handing out awards than receiving them.
“There are many people who are more deserving than me,” he said. “For me it’s always been about the challenge. I can’t say enough about the people at East West Gateway. No matter the differences, we’ve always been able to work together. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to make a difference.”