Memories of Saudi Arabia remain fresh


Local News

October 11, 2019 - 5:25 PM

When Rita Hill (nee Tilman) graduated from Humboldt High in 1970, she never dreamed she’d live in Saudi Arabia. Nor did her husband J.R. Hill, a 1969 graduate of Crest High in Colony.

Married in 1973, they had two children, Joshua and Jennifer, before J.R. was hired by Arabian-American Oil Co. (Aramco) in 1980.

“The kids really never knew anything else,” Rita recalled. Joshua was nearly 2, his sister five months old when the family settled into a compound near a huge Saudi air base that later had a key role in the Gulf War.

When the war started, Rita and the children came home along with most other American dependents. J.R. stayed on the job as a civil cost analyst.

“The war didn’t have much effect on our compound,” he said. “Scuds came over once in awhile,” targeting the air base where U.S. aircraft also flew from, “and we’d see Patriots (air-defense missiles) going up to intercept them.

“Sometimes pieces would fall in the compound” after the missiles collided. Even so, “I never felt threatened and seldom missed a day’s work.”

The fenced compound was the size of a small town — think Humboldt — and included a bowling alley, movie theater and swimming pool. 

As the Hills’ children grew older they found recreation lacking compared to what they would have found in the United States. They also weren’t fond of the year-round heat that routinely exceeded 100 degrees.

“School there ended for the kids when they completed ninth grade and we had to find them a place,” Rita said. Though they considered Humboldt where Rita’s dad, Charlie, lived — Joshua and Jennifer wanted a change of climate. They chose Vermont, where temperatures are much cooler.

While J.R. was busy with his job, Rita was a dental assistant at the compound clinic. She learned dental procedures working for Dr. Max McReynolds.

All the while she and other American women had dispensation from the Saudi king on clothing. “We didn’t have to cover up, but we did have to wear reasonable clothing and long-sleeved tops.” She wasn’t allowed to drive a car, rather took a taxi, bus or had J.R. drive on trips outside the compound.

In 2001 she returned to the U.S. and settled into their home of today near Knoxville, Tenn. J.R. worked four more years before retiring at 55; 60 was mandatory. He does occasional consulting work.

Now, most days are Saturday for Rita, 67, and J.R., 68.

They travel, as much within Tennessee as anywhere, although they went to Italy a year ago and will go again in 2020. 

They are in Humboldt this weekend for the biennial HHS reunion, open to any grad of 40 years or more.  This year’s reunion promises to set an attendance record, said Chris Bauer, who took leadership of the committee after Dennis Sherwood stepped aside. 

Earlier this week reservations have arrived from more than 550 people, with more coming daily.