A graduate of Emory University’s undergraduate and law schools, from 1965-2001 Thomas “Tommy” Hills had a distinguished career at Wachovia Bank, eventually serving as Executive Vice-President. He has also sat on the boards of numerous organizations, including that of the Atlanta Historical Society, which he chaired. In 2003, he was appointed by Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to be the State’s Chief Financial Officer – even as he was pursuing a master’s degree in history at Georgia State! In 2006 Tommy completed his thesis on the rise of Southern banking, under the direction of Glenn Eskew. He recently spoke with Cliff Kuhn about his experience at Georgia State University.
Kuhn: How did you enter the master’s program in the first place?
Hills: I had always been interested in history as a subject, and I wanted to research the history of the banking industry and its role in the commercial development of the region. I was sitting next to [Georgia State President Carl Patton] at a lunch somewhere, and he said, “Why don’t you take a history course at Georgia State?” After I took the first course in historiography with Don Reid, I decided to get a degree.
Kuhn: What did you gain from the program?
Hills: It stimulated my ability to think about how you research an issue, and find information that otherwise might not be known. I remember I was taking Krystyn Moon’s class [in cultural history], and you asked me the question, “How did the banks in Atlanta find the money to start out after the Civil War?” And I went to the archives at the Atlanta History Center and I found the answer. Most of the bankers were unionists during the war. They didn’t put their money into confederate currency. They kept their contacts intact around the country, and after the war they were able to get credit.
There’s also a confidence you get from a class like oral history, where you develop a certain skill set. This has been helpful to me in a paper I’m working on right now on the transformation of the legislature from Democratic domination to Republican domination where I’ve interviewed a number of people about the subject. So the program was very helpful to me.