River sage inducted into Corps’ civilian gallery

Published 10:43 am Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wayland Hill, left, and Vicksburg District commander Col. John W. Cross stand Tuesday near the district's gallery of distinguished employees following Hill's induction into the group.

Wayland Hill, left, and Vicksburg District commander Col. John W. Cross stand Tuesday near the district’s gallery of distinguished employees following Hill’s induction into the group.

Before the Internet tracked the level of the Mississippi River moment by moment, there was Wayland Hill.

“He was the Google of the Vicksburg District,” said Robert Simrall, chief of water control and hydraulics branch of the district’s engineering and construction division, as the 41-year employee was inducted into the Corps’ wall of fame for civilian employees.

“He was the face of the Vicksburg District. Anyone who called the district and wanted to know anything about water, they called Wayland.”

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Hill on Tuesday became the 77th person inducted into the district’s Gallery of Distinguished Employees, a wall of fame set up in 1955 to honor civilian employees for exemplary service to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the district.

For decades before river stages nationwide went online, employees like Hill worked the phones updating river stages using data from engineers who checked wooden gauges in the water. Frequently, he checked them himself. Hill also compiled historic data on the river for the water control division — records that stretched back to the 19th century.

“Around 1900, it was decided that zero was the lowest anyone had ever seen the river,” Hill said in a 2012 interview, explaining how a zero reading on the gauge didn’t always jibe with the actual water level in the river bed. “And they use zero up and down the river.”

The Water Valley native said Tuesday he was simply lucky to have done something for a living in which he took great pleasure.

“I enjoy what I did,” he said. “Not many people can do that.”

Hill started his career with the Corps in 1969 as a draftsman in the minor structures section after he earned as associate’s degree in applied science from Northwest Mississippi Junior College. In 1978, he began working in the hydraulics branch of the reservoir regulation section of the engineering and construction division. He became an expert at forecasting river stages —occasionally taking until midnight to call up to 200 people back who’d called the Corps inquiring about how the river was going, said Simrall, who grew up in around district offices and saw Hill as a youngster. He’d go on to become Hill’s boss.

“I used to kid Robert real hard when he was a kid because he’d come into the office peering around the door,” Hill said. “Who knew he’d become my boss.”

Eventually, he became the point person for operating nine reservoirs within the district’s boundaries, overseeing the work of other reservoir regulation sections of other divisions.

Hill retired in 2010, a year before the historic flood on the Lower Mississippi River system.

In a release, the Corps lauded Hill as “an exemplary role model and mentor who continuously demonstrated personal character, integrity and leadership abilities.”

The plaque below his photo on the gallery wall was even more to the point.

“He was also well known for his professionalism, knowledge and gentle nature,” it reads.