Everyone's a Critic
The Observer's culture blogWednesday, December 3, 2014
HELEN HILL RETIRES, AGAIN, by John Knott
Helen Hill is retiring again, this time at the age of 99. At 2:30 p.m. on December 4, 2014, present and former students will gather at the Turner Senior Resource Center to celebrate her 20 years of teaching memoir writing for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Michigan. With toasts and presentations they will express their respect and affection for Helen and their appreciation of her role in encouraging and guiding their writing and nurturing a supportive community of writers. Many have remained with the group for years as it has continued to evolve with the addition of new members.
Helen's involvement with OLLI began almost by accident when her friend Jim Robertson persuaded her in 1993 to help him meet the demand for courses in memoir writing. She discovered that this was exactly what she wanted to do and has repeated her course in Memoirs and Personal Writing twice a year ever since. In 2001 she and members of the course published a collection of their writing as The Man Who Eats Snakes and Other Tales. One long-term member who contributed to the book, Donald Axon, suggests why the course has been so successful: "[Helen] enveloped us in an atmosphere of curiosity where judgments were suspended or reserved. We described and discussed incidents that had made living rich, exciting or amusing and others that had troubled us. There was no opprobrium in her class. Light and heavy both went over well, and as listeners we had time to say, 'Something like that happened to me…' and tell about it."
Helen retired for the first time in 1984 after teaching Children's Literature and Writing for 21 years at Eastern Michigan University, where she became Professor of English and co-edited several anthologies of poetry for children and young adults. In retirement Helen continued to research and edit the extensive journals of her seagoing grandfather, Captain Edward Baker of Duxbury, Massachusetts. A book combining excerpts from the journals with her own narrative, A Proud & Fiery Spirit, was published by the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society in 1995. Working with other parents of mentally ill children, Helen and her late husband Donald founded the Washtenaw County chapter of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill and led the effort to establish Trailblazers, a clubhouse in Ann Arbor for the mentally ill. Due in large part to the efforts of the Hills, the state of Michigan in 1990 passed legislation requiring all of its mental health agencies to have clubhouse programs.
In mid-December Helen will move to San Diego to join her daughter Rebecca, after living in Ann Arbor since 1948. In January, OLLI member Eleanor Linn will assume responsibility for the memoir writing course Helen created, continuing to foster an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect in which those of any age can find their voices as writers.
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Michigan offers the opportunity to remain active, intellectually engaged, and socially connected throughout midlife and beyond. Drawing on the resources of the university and area communities, OLLI offers its 1300 plus members more than 180 volunteer-led, high quality education, cultural, and social activities each year. OLLI at the University of Michigan also provides meaningful opportunities to volunteer in roles ranging from study group leaders to program planners. Under sponsorship from the Geriatrics Center at the University of Michigan Health System, and with funding from the Bernard Osher Foundation, OLLI at the University of Michigan is open to anyone over the age of 50.
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