Theo Killion, Hill Class of 1970, has been fortunate to have experienced a life that illustrates “the American dream,” he says.
Killion will serve as The Hill School’s 2016 Commencement Speaker on Saturday, May 28 and will receive the Sixth Form Leadership Award at the Class Day Gala event for the Sixth Form the evening before Commencement.
The Class Day Awards and Commencement ceremony will be live streamed via Bleachers. View additional information here.
Baccalaureate will begin at 9 a.m. in Alumni Chapel on May 28, followed by the School’s 165th Commencement ceremony at 10:30 a.m. under the former outdoor ice hockey rink located near the Center For The Arts. A total of 135 students will receive their Hill School diplomas.
Killion came to The Hill through A Better Chance, an organization that provides students of color with the opportunity to attend college-prep private schools across the country.
Raised by his devoted grandparents in the small coal mining town of Montgomery, West Virginia, he was recognized in high school as a student of great academic promise and encouraged to apply for the Upward Bound summer program.
While participating in Upward Bound at West Virginia State College, he and one other student were selected to take the private school aptitude test. In the summer of 1968, Killion took part in the Williams College A Better Chance program and then matriculated at The Hill School for his fifth and sixth form (junior and senior) years.
His transition to The Hill was not an easy one, he admits.
“I never knew I was poor – until I left West Virginia and arrived at The Hill,” he says.
“I left a town of extreme economic challenge, where almost everyone was at or below poverty level, to come to The Hill – a place where students were being dropped off in limousines,” he recalls, adding, “It was like landing on the moon.
“I credit my grandparents and their belief that education would fundamentally improve my life with encouraging me to take a giant educational step by enrolling at The Hill School,” he notes.
Killion points out that he was one of about 10 young black men at the School at the time. “We gravitated toward each other,” he says.
He was required to repeat his junior year, a difficult condition for a young man who had been considered a very high achieving student at his West Virginia school.
“I was really challenged academically at Hill,” Killion says. “Looking back, I remember The Hill in the way people remember a tough teacher that they only appreciate after they finish the course. The academic rigor, the critical thinking, and the intellect of my classmates were all new experiences.”
Killion was a distinguished athlete for the Blues, serving as the captain of both the football and track teams. During his sixth form year he received the Lawrence R. Durrell ’34 Football Award for making the year’s most outstanding contribution to the team and, that same year, he and three teammates set a School record for the outdoor mile relay. Killion still holds Hill’s record for the 440-yard dash (an impressive 49.3 seconds).
Hill taught him that failure and success are never far from one another.
“It’s rare that you have one without the other peeking over your shoulder,” he observes, adding that he learned how to handle both his setbacks and his achievements. “Failure in the pursuit of success is a very noble thing – as long as you learn from it.
“Although I struggled academically at Hill, those challenges and the resulting academic discipline gave me the confidence I needed at Tufts University, where I double-downed and graduated in three years, with honors, along with participating in athletics and holding several leadership positions,” Killion says.
While an undergraduate student, he also “gave back” by working for Upward Bound at Harvard University.
Killion’s career has focused on directing human resources as well as leading merchandising and buying for top retailers including Macy’s, Tommy Hilfiger, L. Brands, and HSN. He spent six years with Zales Jewelry, four as CEO, when he led the brand’s post-recession turnaround. He retired in 2014.
Killion ties much of his success to the liberal arts foundation he received at Hill as well as studies as a history and English major at Tufts University, where he also earned his master’s degree in education.
“I have an enormous bias about the value of a liberal arts education,” Killion says, noting that when he served Macy’s as Senior Vice President of Human Resources he purposefully hired “a huge number of liberal arts graduates.”
“The liberal arts provide an excellent foundation for everything you will do by enabling open-mindedness and flexibility,” he explains. “In hiring liberal arts graduates, we found they were eager to learn and anxious to grow and develop.”
Today, Killion serves on the boards of Express Inc. and Libbey Inc. He is a Trustee on the Committee for Economic Development and a member of the National Association of Corporate Directors. His charitable interest include A Better Chance, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the American Cancer Society, The Bronx Academy of Letters, and The Willow Tree Center.
Killion said Headmaster Zachary G. Lehman shared the “estimate” written about his younger, sixth form self in 1970 by then-Headmaster Archibald Montgomery, who penned that Killion would make a great teacher.
“At Zales, I encouraged my staff to somehow be teachers and educators: to create an environment where people who work for you are stretching horizontally, not just vertically – a place where it’s not just about the dollar, but a place where people are learning and want to both learn and educate others.”
Clearly the soft-spoken, modest Killion is grateful, generous, and eager to teach other young people and help them attain their dreams as well.
Killion and his wife, Dana, have two sons, Alex and Zach, and two daughters, Aliya and Niyama, as well as three grandchildren.
All of us at The Hill are very much looking forward to Killion’s inspiring Commencement address. Look for more information about the Commencement exercises, which will be live-streamed and recorded.