Even as Russian forces massed on the border with Ukraine and the U.S. government urged Americans to leave the country, Jimmy Hill didn’t flee. Instead, he drove even closer to Russian territory in search of treatment for his life partner, who was sick.
James Whitney Hill was killed by Russian artillery fire in Ukraine this week, at least the second American to die there since the invasion began Feb. 24. Before his death, he touched lives around the world through teaching and storytelling, friends and family told USA TODAY. He was 68, said his sister, Katya Hill.
Hill worked tirelessly to find treatment for his life partner, Irina Teslenko, who has multiple sclerosis, his family said in a Friday statement. He refused to leave her bedside when the invasion began, his family said.
“He said ‘I don’t know what I would do if I lost her. I have to do everything I can,'” Katya Hill told reporters Saturday.
“He had worked tirelessly to find her treatment and refused to leave her bedside when the invasion began in Ukraine,” his family said in a statement Friday about his life partner, Irina Teslenko, who has multiple sclerosis.
Hill and Teslenko drove the four hours from Khorol to Chernihiv in northeastern Ukraine days before the invasion. There, Hill documented the deteoriating situation in a series of Facebook posts.
Hill died Thursday when he ventured outside the hospital to find food for patients, nurses and neighbors, as well as to find a way to communicate with loved ones abroad, family said. While initial reports indicated he was killed while waiting in a bread line, the U.S. state department informed the family that he died from a Russian bomb near the hospital, Katya Hill said Saturday.
“He remained true to his love for her, his love for the Ukrainians, and his love for humanity until his death,” family said. “In such disasters and crises, may we all be blessed to find someone like Jimmy.”
Anton Gerashchenko, the adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, confirmed Hill’s death on a verified Telegram account, sharing an image of Hill’s passport.
“Jimmy was such a special person with friends around the world,” Katya Hill said. “He was always trying to bring people together and was a peacemaker. And there is an irony here, but I haven’t been able to process that, of what’s going on compared to how he lived his life.”
Hill was born in Minnesota and graduated from Mahtomedi High School in 1973. He was one of five children, said Karin Moseley, a longtime friend who lives in the town near where they grew up.
After graduating, Hill initially enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Moseley said. Then he traveled the world for years, said Moseley, who recalls receiving a postcard from India. “I don’t know too many places that he hasn’t been,” she said.
Hill eventually settled down in Washington state, where he did social work for the state government, according to Moseley and a resume sent to one school and viewed by USA TODAY. He married, had two sons, divorced and began to travel again, she said.
Hill taught in Ukraine and throughout Europe for more than 20 years, often securing positions by reaching out to various educational institutions, Moseley said.
“It wasn’t just going over there to teach English. I truly think he was trying to build bridges and get people to think,” she said.
Hill also purchased property in Idaho and Montana, where he loved to go fly-fishing, and rented out a couple of the properties on Airbnb, Moseley said.
“That’s what he felt he had to do so that he could help provide for Irina, which quite frankly was the most important thing to him,” Moseley said.
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In recent years, Hill had been traveling back and forth more frequently between the U.S. and Ukraine, said Moseley, who visited Hill at his Idaho home in October. Hill spoke with Teslenko every day when he was away, she said.
“He slept with his laptop, in case, because of the time difference he didn’t want to miss a call,” Moseley said.
Many who knew Hill said he would host speaking clubs for English learners whenever he came to Kyiv, through student groups and in the living rooms of friends’ apartments.
“Jimmy was not only a teacher, he was kind of a celebrity guy. Everyone who speaks English knows him very well because he organized a lot of initiatives about psychology, speaking clubs,” said Denys Dniprovskyi, 36, who met Hill in 2010 when he was taking English courses in Kyiv.
Dniprovskyi’s wife, Violetta Dniprovska, said Hill once brought his son to a speaking group. She spoke with USA TODAY on the phone Friday evening from western Ukraine, where she fled to from Kyiv and is staying with the couple’s two children and cat.
Her husband remains in Kyiv. “He was really brave man and a really loyal friend,” he said Friday night as he drove around Ukraine’s capital distributing food and medicine sent from Poland.
Hill traveled frequently and lectured in several other countries – including the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Austria and Romania – teaching English and psychology, according to friends and the resume.
“He was very deep, very kind,” said Olga Nikolaienko, who said she first met Hill in 2011 when he was teaching English at a school called Britishway in Kyiv. “He was a people person.”
Nearly every summer since 2014, Hill taught at the Prague Summer School on Crime, Law and Psychology, a one-week course on the application of psychological approaches and research methods to criminal justice.
Denmark-based student Nadine Hollmann, 26, who attended the school in 2017, recalled Hill as a passionate lecturer who loved meeting new people and learning about different cultures. “He left his mark on anyone he met along the way,” she told USA TODAY.
Egle Havrdova, director of the school, said she and Hill used to joke about planning a trip to one of Hill’s properties in the U.S. near Yellowstone National Park. She said Hill was popular among students “because he was able to tell the true stories to illustrate the theoretical concepts he was teaching.”
“He was brave and had a wonderful sense of humor, which helped him to survive the difficulties related to the health problems of his partner,” she said.
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Since 2016, Hill taught English and psychology with Education Assembly, an educational volunteer organization in Kyiv, said coordinator Ivan Vasyliuk, 30.
“We can’t believe until reading about the tragedy from the news. U.S. government advised to leave Ukraine, but Jimmy stayed,” Vasyliuk said. “This is truly a great loss for our organization and Ukraine.”
Employees of Education Assembly are now fighting in the armed forces, waging war against disinformation and volunteering locally, Vasyliuk said.
As Russian forces drew closer to Chernihiv and the hospital lost heat, Hill documented the conditions he faced on Facebook. Iryna Mozhova, 41, a lecturer from Kyiv who fled to Spain, said she watched in horror as her friend’s online postsbecame shorter and shorter. “It was really horrible to observe,” she said.
Hill wrote on Facebook March 11: “I have no way of charging phone. I should preserve power.” The next day, he added: “Power out no gas no water.”
“We are trapped in Chernihiv,” he wrote March 13. “They bomb here every night. People discouraged. Food shortages, gas, running water, some electricity… there is a siege here…”
Hill’s last post, on March 15, read: “Intense bombing! still alive. Limited food. Room very cold. Ira in intensive care.”
Hill’s partner, Teslenko, and her mother are still at the hospital, Katya Hill told reporters Saturday. Nurses told Teslenko’s mother that Hill had been killed but she was hesitant to relay the news to her daughter. Katya Hill said she is unsure if Teslenko yet knows her partner has died.
“I want everyone to know she’s still there,” Moseley said. “We’re not honoring Jimmy if we sit there and let her get bombed in a hospital.”
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Contributing: Christine Fernando, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jimmy Hill, American killed in Ukraine, stayed to help sick partner