Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Setting the Tone: Walter and Gladys Hill

I was delighted a couple of weeks ago to run into someone who grew up in the same city I did. As we talked and reminisced about the place I learned they had a family member who not only lived in that city still but in fact lived on the street I grew up on decades ago. They told me how much their family member loved that neighbourhood, but really that street, as it was the kind of place where neighbours looked out for each other, shovelling each others' driveways and mowing each others' lawns, the kind of place where block parties and block garage sales and neighbourhood potlucks occurred. I smiled as I remembered it all well, as my parents were one of the founding neighbours on that street, one of the very first to move into a brand new house there and call it home for almost thirty years, and I believe they and their generous and kind country ways set the tone for that street in many ways, a tone that appears to exist even today,

I thought a lot about that street when I attended the recent grand opening for the Walter and Gladys Hill Public School in Eagle Ridge. I was there a couple of years ago when the project broke ground, too. I recall the day fairly well, an expanse of empty field in a bustling new neighbourhood and a sense of excitement and optimism for the new school, a desperately needed addition to the Fort McMurray Public School District. For me to follow the project through from groundbreaking to official opening was one of those sweet moments in the history of writing about this community, seeing a beginning, a goal achieved and a glimpse of the future - but it was so much more, too, because the name of the school honours a founding family of Fort McMurray that I have written about several times.

I didn't know Walter and Gladys Hill, and I deeply regret I never had the opportunity to do so. I have had the great fortune to speak to their son Ken Hill on a few occasions, even writing about him for an issue of Big Spirit magazine a couple of years ago. I have taken the liberty of writing about the Hill family on other occasions, too, like on Remembrance Day when a name said during the ceremony took me on an exploration of a sad loss suffered by the Hill family and the kind of loss suffered by families all over this country during the wars we have fought. When I wanted to do some personal photographs reflective of this community I chose Heritage Park as the setting, which is how there are photos of me inside the Hill house and outside Hill's drugs, two places both iconic and symbolic of this community. And through it all, ever since starting this blog, I have wanted to know more about Walter and Gladys Hill.

I was incredibly honoured to be present at the grand opening of the school that bears their name to hear their son speak about them. He told stories about them, about his father being sociable and a talker who loved to chat with everyone who came into his store (and in my mind I could see it, the old Hill's drug store where these conversations occurred, bustling with shoppers and people seeking prescriptions but some probably just coming in to talk to Walter, too). Ken told stories of his mother and her sense of humour and her interest in sports. As Ken spoke - he said he thought for too long, but for me, hungry to know more about his parents, not nearly long enough - Walter and Gladys Hill began to come alive for me, two people who chose Fort McMurray as their home. They were not people who sought attention or notoriety, not those who served the community for some personal gain, but simply people who did what they did because they believed in doing good and contributing to their community in a positive way.

They were a lot like my parents, I thought as I sat in the audience listening to Ken. Just as my parents set the tone for their street, a tone that has lasted long after their departure from this earth, so too did Walter and Gladys Hill set the tone for this community. Through their example they showed others the way to live, and I believe we could trace much of the good parts of this community - our sense of philanthropy, of volunteerism, of pride - back to founding families like the Hills. They exemplify all that is best about this community and their legacy is not just their name on a school in Eagle Ridge but the sense so many of us have about what a community is and what we do to contribute to it. That is a powerful legacy indeed, one that runs deep and strong and true.

Decades ago people didn't talk about how to build communities. They didn't write books about it, do workshops or give lectures. They instinctively knew how to build a strong and resilient community, simply by doing good things for others, by contributing in whatever ways they could, by adding their skills and strengths to those of others in the community to create something amazing. In some ways we think of those times as antiquated and yet in the ways that truly matter they were so far ahead of us, a society that often struggles with knowing how to build the kind of community they just created without even knowing they were doing so, without a plan, a path or a map. Walter and Gladys Hill were those kinds of people.

The new Walter and Gladys Hill Public School is  beautiful indeed, and as a parent of a child who, when she graduates, will have spent her entire education in the FMPSD, I was beyond delighted to see the addition of a new school to our collection of incredible schools. I was honoured to be there to celebrate the grand opening, and I look forward to years of hearing about the accomplishments of the students there. The name that the school bears honours two people who deserve so much recognition and honour because they had an impact on a community that has lasted for decades and will likely last for decades more, not just in the name of a school or a collection of buildings in Heritage Park but in the tone and tenor of this community.

After the opening concluded I saw Ken Hill in the atrium. Although I felt a bit shy about it I decided to approach him, uncertain if he would remember the times I wrote about him, his family and their experiences in this community. I walked up and introduced myself, feeling a bit nervous, and was astonished when he exclaimed: "You do such a wonderful job writing about us!" and wrapped me in a bear hug.

I tried to hide it but at the moment he hugged me tears formed in my eyes and threatened to run down my cheeks right in front of everyone. As a writer and a member of this community all I have ever wanted was to be able to somehow capture not only some of the present in this community but some of our past, too, showing how it linked with today and led us into the future. I have always wanted to honour the legacy of those who founded this place and who helped it become what it is today, and to ensure that their contributions are not lost over time and during the inevitable changes that have occurred and are yet to occur. I always wanted it to be understood that, while I embrace and welcome the future as someone who is, in relative terms, new to the community despite my thirteen years here, I honour the past and the community members who were here long ago and built this place in both the physical and emotional sense. When Ken Hill, part of one of the founding families who set the tone for the community I love and call home, hugged me I felt something indescribable, a sort of joy at knowing that he felt I had done well in writing about and honouring his family.

I left the grand opening at the new school when it was still in full swing, people visiting and chatting. I sat in the parking lot for a moment, looking at the lovely new school which will keep the Hill name alive for decades more to come, and I reflected on how a couple I never knew impacted my own life long after they were gone. I thought back to the earlier conversation with the person who knew someone who lived on my parents' old street and how I had said to them: "My parents were named John and Betty - I think if your family asks around someone on the street will probably remember them", and how she contacted me a couple of days later to tell me that my parents were indeed considered legendary on that street, long gone but still missed and not forgotten, tales of their kindness and commitment to their neighbours being shared even today.

I drove away from Walter and Gladys Hill Public School smiling, because you see some names are never forgotten, because they are etched not just onto schools or buildings but right onto the very heart of our community, and I have been so fortunate to get to know, even just a little bit, the story attached to some of those names, and it has changed my life.

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