Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 8:53 PM on Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Helen Hill: A life with libraries

Kachemak Color

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Homer Public Library director Helen Hill stands by the sign outside the library.

In 2001 when Helen Hill became the new director of the Homer Public Library, she had looked to return to Alaska after a hiatus Outside. You know, settle into a small town, get to know your neighbors and continue a career in the state you came to love during college.

What Hill didn't count on was that she'd also help steer a major capital campaign to build a new public library. Shortly after starting here, library supporters asked Hill if she would join the project to build a new library.

"The most significant thing was that she said 'yes,'" said Sue Mauger, former chair of the Library Advisory Board. "That was a really important piece that had to fall in place."

This week, Hill celebrates 10 years as director. Friday, she ends that tenure. Not many librarians can point to a new community library as their legacy. It's an achievement that caps Hill's 30 years working in libraries, starting with a job at the Fairbanks Public Library while a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Friday, Hill and her husband Ron Hurlburt also end their stay in Homer. If they can sneak out of town without one last farewell party, they'll hit the road and head south for a new life in Gardnerville, Nev.

Hill, 53, came to Alaska in January 1981 for the same reason as a lot of young people: "For the adventure," she said.

Born in San Francisco, Hill grew up in Mill Valley, Calif., and graduated from Tamalpais High School.

A friend from high school, Sarah Burdick, went to UAF. Hill attended Sonoma College. Burdick invited her to come up for the semester.

"I intended to see what Fairbanks was like and come back to Sonoma, but I got a group of friends in Fairbanks," Hill said.

She stayed.

Hill decided on a degree in anthropology, mainly because she was interested in the subject, she said.

"I knew that was a solid foundation to branch out somewhere," Hill said. "When I started working in the library, I knew where that somewhere was."

Working her way through school, it took her six years to finish. One of her jobs was at the Fairbanks Public Library. That's a path she recommends to potential students.

"I appreciated my education so much because I was paying for it myself," Hill said. "I really worked hard in school."

After getting a bachelor of arts in anthropology from UAF, Hill worked for a while in Juneau while she applied to graduate schools. She went to the University of California at Berkeley, the same university her father attended. With 30,000 students, Berkeley was bigger than Juneau. The size intimidated her as an undergraduate, but as a library sciences grad student, she had the intimacy of a small program. She came to love all the little libraries UC Berkeley had.

"It really gave me such an understanding that libraries have their own personalities and not all libraries are the same," Hill said.

After graduating with a master of library science, Hill had intended to return to Alaska. She had been an intern at the law library of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and wound up working there full time.

"I thought I'd stay there for a couple of years," she said. "I ended up there 12 years."

Hill gained one experience that would serve her later when the Homer library moved. The law library had to be upgraded to meet earthquake seismic standards, and the collection moved out — and back in when the remodel was done.

In 1995, she met her husband. Burdick, the Fairbanks friend, had moved to Montana. Hill went to visit her, and Hurlburt was visiting Burdick's husband.

"We liked each other. We started writing letters," Hill said. "It just sort of progressed."

Then living in Nevada, Hurlburt had grown up in Fairbanks. He taught English at UAF when Hill was there, though they never met then. After marrying, they both wanted to get back north.

"I always felt my heart was with public libraries. I missed public libraries. We both missed Alaska," she said.

When Hill agreed to help with the library capital campaign, Hurlburt became her willing, unpaid assistant.

"He was wonderful," Hill said. "I joke they got two for the price of one."

Carey Restino, now director of the Friends of the Homer Public Library, said she remembered meeting Hill during the start of the capital campaign.

"I was amazed at her positive attitude about building a new library from the first day," Restino said. "I think it was a combination of her positive attitude and a gentle but persistent personality that led the charge for the new library and weathered the transition into the new space with aplomb."

Mauger said many people see librarians as demure and quiet. Hill is that, but "mainly only in volume but not in intensity and passion," Mauger said. "There's a lot there that's expressed in a contained way."

After the new library opened, in November 2007 Hill was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her treatment, she kept working.

"It gave me a reason to get dressed every morning," she said. "It gave me a focus outside myself and helped me put things in perspective."

Homer helped her get through her cancer, Hill said.

"People need to know when something that scary happens to you, you need to face it head on," she said. "That people want to help you and we have a wonderful community."

Hill and Hurlburt don't have any set plans for Nevada. She has a brother and his family and her mother still in California that she looks forward to seeing more often.

"This was such a life changing project for me," Hill said of her time in Homer.

"The library and living here in Homer. I feel that I have learned so much from the people of Homer, and that you've truly enriched my life."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.