Joseph Abner Hill, college president, the sixth of eleven children of Francis Patterson and Rachel (Witt) Hill, was born on October 29, 1877, on a cotton farm five miles south of Moody, in Bell County, Texas. His father, a tenant farmer who had come to Texas from Oxford, Alabama, was a former Confederate cavalryman. Joseph grew up picking cotton and doing other menial labor. He began his formal education at Stampede School, near Moody, in 1882 and later attended Thomas Arnold High School in Salado, where he boarded at the home of his mother's cousin, Professor T. J. Witt. After graduating in 1897, Hill chose as a gift from his father $100 instead of a horse, so he could go to college at the University of Texas in Austin. After working his way through a year of school, he taught in rural schools for two years to earn more money to complete his B.A. degree in history, which he received in 1902. Later that year he and Witt took over the administration of Central Texas Institute, which they purchased and reorganized under the name Jefferson Academy at Salado. On June 30, 1903, Hill married his high school sweetheart, Ola Ethel Davis; they had two sons and a daughter.
After Witt was stricken with tuberculosis in 1904, Hill conducted the floundering Jefferson Academy himself for two years before selling it and taking the position of school superintendent at Richmond, Texas, in September 1906. After a year there he returned to his hometown and served as principal of Bell's Hill School in Waco while taking business courses on the side. He worked briefly in a bank at Eddy and later at the First National Bank at Moody. He became director and assistant cashier at the newly organized Farmers' State Bank before a panic in the fall of 1907 prompted him to move to West Texas. In March 1908 he became an associate in the Witt Grain, Feed, and Fuel Company at Hamlin, Jones County, where he did bookkeeping, buying, and managerial duties. Late that summer he accepted the superintendency of the schools at Roscoe, where he remained for the next two years.
In 1910 Robert B. Cousins invited Hill to become chairman of the history department at the newly established West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) in Canyon. Among other things, Hill displayed in his office a collection of pioneer artifacts given him by Robert Elliott of Amarillo in 1913, but on March 25, 1914, the collection was lost in the fire that destroyed the college's first administration building. Nevertheless, Hill's interest in the formation of a regional museum and historical society was fueled, and he later interviewed Charles Goodnight concerning that goal at the Palace Hotel in Canyon. In 1915 Hill took off a year to do graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied under Herbert Eugene Bolton and received his M.A. degree in 1916. Afterward, Hill continued his chairmanship at WTSNC until the summer of 1918, when he was chosen by the board of regents to succeed Cousins as president of the college. In that position he guided the institution for thirty years, through its critical period of growth and expansion into a four-year institution. On February 21, 1921, he and Hattie M. Anderson, along with eight other faculty members and thirty students, organized the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society; Lester F. Sheffy, who had succeeded Hill as history-department chairman, was its first president. Hill's dream of a regional museum became reality with the establishment of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in 1933. In addition, Hill was a leading figure in the Texas State Teachers Association and the Council of Texas State Teachers College Presidents. He was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree by Hardin-Simmons University in 1931.
Hill published American History for Schools, written in collaboration with R. B. Cousins, in 1913. In 1944 he and Hattie M. Anderson published My Country and Yours, which was widely used as a textbook in Texas public schools and subsequently appeared in two revisions. His other books include One Man's Faith (1954), a compilation of his speeches; The Panhandle-Plains Historical Society and Its Museum (1955); More than Brick and Mortar (1959), the first published history of WTA&M, to which he added a supplement in 1963; and I Hold the Key, or My Success Depends on Me (1962), a compilation of famous inspirational quotations. In addition, for several years he contributed a series of columns and articles to the Amarillo Times and the Canyon News.
Hill organized and served as first president of the Canyon Rotary Club. He was a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Canyon and chaired the building committee that built the church's present structure. He was also a district president of the Llano Estacado Council of the Boy Scouts of America and a member of the BSA's National Council. After his retirement from the presidency of WTSC in 1948, he continued his writings and activity in college and community affairs; on October 21, 1950, he dedicated the Joseph A. Hill Memorial Chapel on the WTA&M campus. Hill's son, Joe Jr., was a member of Adm. Richard E. Byrd's second Antarctic expedition in 1933. After the death of his wife in 1955, Hill married Mrs. Goldie Hobson Savage, widow of fellow faculty member Floyd E. Savage, on April 15, 1956. The Hills resided in Canyon until 1969, when they moved to the Wesleyan Retirement Home in Georgetown. In 1971, just before his ninety-fourth birthday, Hill completed his last book, Autobiographical Notes on the Life of Joseph Abner Hill. He died on June 26, 1973, and was interred in Dreamland Cemetery at Canyon. His papers are housed in the research center of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.