A three-part biographical sketch of Fred L. Hillis,
as recounted by his daughter, Cynthia
Fred Leroy Hillis was born June 8, 1918 near Brosely,
MO. He was the first
of three boys born to 15 year old Hattie
Franklin Hillis and Sam Leroy Hillis, a manual
laborer for the railroad. His parents
were poor by anyone's standards and barely educated.
In 1927, Fred's father Sam died of
tuberculosis. His mother soon found herself in desperate
circumstances. Her family was able to offer no help. Hattie
was one of 10 children and her in-laws
boasted an even larger family (21). Rural Missouri offered no hope
of employment for a young widow with three
small sons and an eighth-grade education.
Looking for work, Hattie eventually found her way
to St. Louis where she finally found employment as a waitress. It was soon
obvious that her pathetic salary was not going to be enough to feed both
herself and her sons. She temporarily found a place for the boys at an
orphan's home sponsored by the Feefee Baptist Church in Hazelwood, Missouri near St. Louis. It
was the time of the Great Depression, and homes for orphans across the
nation were swelling with the children of the destitute. The grinding
poverty of Fred's childhood proved to be a formative seed. He developed
an unquenchable appetite for knowledge that never died. He realized early
in life that education was the only way to a better life. He decided that
he would do whatever it took to achieve that goal.
Gradually, Fred and his brother Randy started to
earn a bit from various odd jobs. The families' slowly improving
financial situation finally allowed them to live together again in 1932.
It had been a long separation.
By age 14 Fred was as tall as most men, and managed to pass himself off as
18 for a job after school and weekends for the Anheuser Busch brewery in
St. Louis. He was assigned to an area populated by a tight-knit
bunch of tough old German brewers. Many still communicated only in
their native tongue. Fred quickly developed a muscle bound body from
the heavy physical demands of his job. Simultaneously, as the months
wore on, he also began to understand more of the second language of the
brewery, German; an accomplishment that ten years hence was to prove
As a young man, Fred worked and saved what he could, finally making it
to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, a Freshman finally
at age 20. His chosen course of study, Electrical Engineering, was far
from an easy one. He found a multitude of various jobs between and after
classes to pay his way, but his rigid schedule left little time for socializing
or dates. Study was done in bits and spurts whenever he could work it
in. In 1941, two things happened that were to alter this regimented
lifestyle forever. Fred met a beautiful, hazel-eyed brunette from
a farm near Napton, Missouri. Though Mary Frances Abney was a year
younger than Fred was, she was already a Senior and an honor student at
the university. The attraction was immediate and mutual, and neither
dated anyone else thereafter. It was love!
Close on the heels of the budding new
relationship, the events of the morning of December 7, 1941 changed the
lives of millions, including that of Fred and Mary. The two oldest
Hillis brothers enlisted with the multitudes that volunteered following
Pearl Harbor, Fred with the Army Air Corps, and Randy with the Navy.
They joined their younger brother John, who was already serving in the
Pacific on Midway Island as a Marine.