'Mayor of Mt. Tabor' retires
The Mt. Tabor Park Visitors Center, normally a wealth of resources for visitors and treats for dogs, closed for four months when the COVID-19 pandemic came to Oregon.
Visitors center coordinator Dave Hillman said neighbors sent him photos of their dogs to tell him how much they missed the center.
"It was too bad we couldn't be there for people," he said.
The center reopened in July, and through a plexiglass window, Hillman helps visitors navigate the 196-acre park and tells them about the dormant volcano and 500-year-old trees within it.
Over the past 20 years, Hillman has become a part of the park. After helping to establish the nonprofit Friends of Mt. Tabor Park, the park's Foot Patrol and its visitors center, he has earned the nickname "Mayor of Mt. Tabor."
"It's too easy, I think, to sometimes take things for granted," Hillman said. Mt. Tabor is "a tangible physical, lovable resource that we need to cherish and ensure that it's preserved for generations to follow."
Hillman, now 84, is ready to take a step back and "retire" — though for him, that still means volunteering at least once a week.
Hillman is no stranger to hard work.
He and his wife, Guin, spent 40 years in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where they met during college. Hillman worked in human resources, first at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and eventually for the Antioch Co. During that time, he also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dayton, an elected township trustee and a volunteer firefighter.
Additionally, Hillman volunteered at Glen Helen, a 1,000-acre nature preserve, where Guin served on the board.
They bought a house just blocks from Mt. Tabor Park in 1989, where his daughter lived until he and Guin retired and moved to Portland in 1998.
"When we bought our house, we had no idea we would become so actively involved," Hillman said.
Mt. Tabor Park had undergone a series of improvements thanks to a 1994 parks bond, which allocated nearly $60 million to 99 parks in Portland.
Portland Parks & Recreation created the Mt. Tabor Park Master Plan, which detailed how to improve the park, including creating a community group to support it.
Steve Pixley, Portland Parks & Recreation volunteer coordinator, said Hillman "was there from Day One, the very first meeting in the little, beat-up old office building."
Mt. Tabor residents gathered in living rooms around the neighborhood to discuss the idea. "It was at one of these meetings that we decided, 'OK, why don't we form a group called the Friends of Mt. Tabor Park?'" Hillman said. "Which we did, and I became the first chairperson of the group."
Hillman served as chair of the nonprofit for about eight years. Friends groups come and go, Pixley said, but the Friends of Mt. Tabor Park has stuck around in part because of Hillman's persistence.
One of the first projects Hillman helped to start was the Foot Patrol, which picks up litter, reports problems and answers questions for park visitors.
Gary Manougian helped advise the foot patrol. He is a retired Portland Police Bureau officer who spent most of his 38-year career working in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood.
Manougian said the Mt. Tabor Foot Patrol is a model for other parks because it is so active and effective at community policing. "I do not know how many people were not victims of car prowls or other types of comparatively low-level crimes because of having contact with the Friends of Mt. Tabor Foot Patrol," he said.
Mary Kinnick, a retired Portland State University professor, spent eight years as the coordinator for the Weed Warriors program, another Friends activity that clears out invasive species in the park.
Hillman recruited her to the Friends in 2006. "He found out we were moving to the neighborhood and recruited me right on the spot," she said.
Hillman is most proud of the visitors center, he said. He learned that the Hoyt Arboretum had a visitors center while on a parks budget advisory committee, and he immediately began "campaigning" to start one at Mt. Tabor.
To hear Hillman tell it, it was an immediate success — but according to Kinnick, getting it started was an uphill battle.
Kinnick said even some of the board members were skeptical, adding, "It was just too grandiose. Like, we're just a little park. A visitors center, are you kidding me?"
Kinnick said they didn't think they would be able to get volunteers or stay open. But Hillman pulled what Kinnick called a "classic Dave move" — "Do what needs to be done and ask permission later."
The visitos center opened in September 2011 in an old parks office. Nine years later, the center is open almost daily and is filled with brochures on topics ranging from the history of the park to the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Oregon Trail.
In between the brochures, keepsakes and posters along the walls are archival historic photos of Mt. Tabor Park, donated by Jan Caplener, a Realtor who has worked in the neighborhood for decades. Caplener collected the photos with his son for a project in high school, 25 years ago. "And Dave said, 'If you're not going to use those, how about donating them to the visitors center?'" Caplener said.
Hillman has tracked how many visitors the center has helped since the beginning — it's more than 68,000 to date. He loves to talk with the visitors and find out where they're from and why they're in Mt. Tabor Park.
Hillman said he was surprised to learn how many visitors came not just from the Pacific Northwest, but from the East Coast and across the world. Maps inside the center keep track of where the visitors come from with an array of colorful pins.
"Being here, for me, is a hoot," he said.
End of an era
Hillman will retire as the coordinator of the Mt. Tabor Visitors Center at the end of August, though he'll still volunteer regularly. "It's just time to have a little bit more time just for myself," he said.
"I'm also a strong, very strong, believer from my years in management that every now and then you need some new people at the top," he said, "because new people come in and they usually have often great ideas, and the organizations find themselves being improved."
Friends say his legacy is as a steward of the park.
"He's looked out for it. He's protected it. He's stood up for it. He's fought for it," Caplener said. "Those kinds of neighbors and those kinds of residents, they're few and far between."
Hillman also expanded the community's stewardship of the park, Kinnick said, and "they also become forever stewards of the park, because of Dave."
Hillman isn't sure what he'll do next. He and his wife would like to travel, he said, but they'll have to wait until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
"When I look back at things," Hillman said, "I want to be able to say, 'Hey, maybe I made a difference.'"
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