by Robin Watton Stevens
In 1952, there wasn’t much business in the area known as Fairlawn today. That is, until Ross Large and his sister-in-law Ruth Schaaf opened the Skyway Drive-In Restaurant on Route 18. Swenson’s had already had a 20-year jump on the hamburger business and some doubted whether Skyway could even survive.
Not only did it survive, it thrived, with the Sky-Hi Burger, Aunt Ruth’s Chili and Skyway’s famous onion rings still going strong.
As the years rolled by, Fairlawn became the bustling city we know today. It’s hard to miss the tiny but beckoning building on the northern side of West Market Street, now surrounded by restaurants, stores and other shops. Three generations of owners have greeted people from everywhere.
But what you may not know is that for the better part of six decades, over those three generations, one Akron woman has been a part of this thriving business.
Wilma Hill, a young mother of three, began working at Skyway on May 5, 1963. She was hired by Jack Large to work the drink fountain for $1 per hour. When she started, the West Market Street bus ran from downtown to Sand Run Road. Wilma lived on East Lods Street in the Cascade Valley. So every day, she walked up Howard Street, rode the bus up to Sand Run Road, then walked a mile and a quarter to the restaurant. At the end of her shift, she would walk back down West Market Street to meet the inbound bus at Sand Run Road, get off at Howard Street, and walk back down the hill to Lods Street.
After a year, she got a 10-cent raise. After a couple of years, she was able to buy a car.
Before Skyway, Wilma sold Avon cosmetics and “Queensway to Fashion” Clothing, as well as doing housekeeping to make ends meet. She worked full-time for Skyway from 1963 to 2018. During that time, she also worked full-time for Ohio Edison, now First Energy. She did both jobs for more than 20 years.
After leaving First Energy in 2008, she began picking up additional work at the Skyway in Green.
Wilma recently retired from Skyway after 55 years and seven months on the job.
During her decades at Skyway, Wilma did everything from cleaning to prepping onion rings to building Sky-Hi burgers.
In the late 1970s, she was befriended by a young college student, Mike Johnson, who was a co-writer with Tracy Thomas for the well-known Akron band Unit 5. At that time, students were hired to “curb” during the time they were in school. Wilma said that Mike had invited her to come hear the band play at Bank Nightclub, which she often did with friends. As time passed, she attended less frequently, but, in 1980 she received a 45 record from Mike, autographed by each member of the band, with a notation that read, “Hey, Hill, where you at?” and another, “Come see us, damn it.” Per his request, Wilma promptly resumed her visits to the Bank to hear Unit 5 play.
While we talked, Wilma mentioned at least three times that Michael had installed the FM radio in her car and placed a giant speaker in the trunk.
In 1981, around the time of Mike’s graduation party, Wilma returned home one evening to an intruder. He emerged from her bathroom and shot her. While the injury slowed her for a bit, it certainly didn’t stop her — within a few months, she’d made a full recovery and was back to work at Skyway.
Today, Wilma is still that same ball of fire the staff and patrons know and love. As her tenure at Skyway came to a close in December, there was a large outpouring of love from the community. One customer commented on Skyway’s Facebook page, “Wilma Hill is legendary.” Another wrote that her family regularly visited the restaurant and “she probably made my BBQ cheeseburger w/ onion rings on it. Best in town.” Her co-workers made her a scrapbook with dozens of kind comments, describing her as one of the driving forces of the operation who they could always depend on.
Wilma finally retired from Skyway on Dec. 18, 2018. She is finally able to give more attention to her main vocation as a practicing minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses. You may see her from time to time around town with fellow ministers talking to people about the Bible, engaged in what is known as the “field ministry” — going door-to-door offering encouragement and Bible study or out on the street with a literature cart.
Wilma will encourage you to read your Bible daily. Don’t be too hasty to wave her off. Remember, if you were a Skyway customer sometime in the last 55 years, she probably made your onion rings.
Robin Watton Stevens manages distribution for The Devil Strip.