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Percy Hill, engineer who designed Reach toothbrush

Percy H. Hill Jr., whose lifetime of tinkering led him to design the original Reach Toothbrush, died Monday of congestive heart failure at Memorial Hospital in North Conway, N.H. He was 80.

Mr. Hill, a design engineer, spent 35 years teaching at Tufts University, 26 of them as chairman of the department of engineering design. He also taught design engineering in the evening school at Northeastern University for 14 years.

In 1976, Design Review magazine gave Mr. Hill the Excellence in Design award for the patent of the Reach Toothbrush.

"He was hired by DuPont to come up with new design for a toothbrush," said his wife of 56 years, Charlotte. "Unfortunately, he didn't get any royalties."

Mr. Hill was born Feb. 19, 1923, in Norfolk, Va. He graduated from Maury High School in Norfolk. While he was a student at Virginia Tech, Mr. Hill enlisted in the Navy V-12 program and served as communication officer on the USS Savo Island in the Pacific until 1946. That year he married Charlotte Hall, of Winchester.

Mr. Hill was hired by Tufts University in 1948 as an instructor, and he quickly moved up the ranks.

"He always wanted to be an engineer," Charlotte said. "At 15, he was the state champ in Virginia for flying model airplanes. He was a very creative person. That's why he went into design."

Mr. Hill earned a master's degree from Harvard University in 1951 and in 1954 he wrote a textbook on descriptive geometry. It was his first of nine textbooks on engineering, many of which were adopted by engineering schools across the country.

James O'Leary, who worked with Mr. Hill for almost 20 years at Tufts, said he used Mr. Hill's textbooks at a West Virginia school before joining the Tufts faculty.

"He was someone who was dedicated to the education of the engineers," O'Leary said. "I learned a great deal from him about engineering, about teaching. He could make things happen. He was a man of his own convictions. He did what he thought should be done in any given situation."

Mr. Hill's work at Tufts was so celebrated that in the late 1960s, he caught the attention of producers of the television series "What's My Line?" and was featured as a guest, his wife said. He gave a celebrity panel several objects including a paper clip, aluminum foil, a pencil, a piece of cardboard, and a single-edged razor blade, and asked the guests to create something that worked.

His wife said Mr. Hill affectionately called this assignment, which he also gave to students, "Operation Paper Clip."

In addition to his work at Tufts, Mr. Hill was involved with the national board of the American Society for Engineering Education, of which he was a lifetime member, and was honored with the Distinguished Service Award from the group's Design Graphics division and the Fred Merryfield Award for Excellence in Engineering Design Education.

After retiring from Tufts in 1983, Mr. Hall moved with his wife from Winchester to Silver Lake, a small village in Madison, N.H. He soon became active in the town government and was a chief fund-raiser for the town's new library, as well as serving on many town boards, including the school board and the zoning board. Mr. Hill was chairman of the village's Master Plan, designed the Silver Lake dam extension, and was a selectman for nine years.

In the 1970s, he founded the Silver Lake Sailing Club and the Madison Scholarship Fund, which has since awarded more than $65,000 to students. In addition to his love for sailing, Mr. Hill also enjoyed golfing and fishing and was a longtime member of the Indian Mound Golf Club and former president of the Men's Twilight League.

"All his life, he had been helping others," Charlotte said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Hill leaves two daughters, Mary Ann Head of Wellesley and Lisa Teahan of Winchester; a brother, Jack M., of Williamsburg, Va.; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for Sept. 13 at 11 a.m. in Madison Church in New Hampshire.

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