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Mary Hilfiker
Mary Hilfiker

A friend in deed

World traveler makes
connections around the globe

By Judy Berthiaume

Mary Hilfiker was traveling in India when she asked her guide about giving money to the beggars who seemed to be everywhere. He suggested she give to those who remained politely off to the side, saying those were the honorable people.

“But as I started to go to them, he told me to be respectful because the beggar’s job was important,” said Hilfiker, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1967. “Surprised, I asked what job the beggars had that was important. He said, ‘Their job is to make you feel better about yourself.’ They were giving me something, too, and I was not acknowledging that contribution. I’ve always looked at giving differently after that day.”

An avid traveler who’s visited all 50 states and every continent, Hilfiker, 61, has countless stories about people like the Indian guide — people with different backgrounds and perspectives — who have influenced how she thinks about and lives her life.

“When you travel it forces you to look at things differently,” said Hilfiker, whose international adventures have ranged from horseback riding and camping in Mongolia to whitewater rafting on the Futaleufu River in Chile to exploring the Antarctic to visiting Cuba to traveling through Switzerland (her parents’ homeland). “If you’re willing to be open, the people you meet can change you and affect your beliefs.”

Inspired by the kindness and generosity of the people she’s met in her travels, the educator, activist and philanthropist hopes she has done her small part in helping expand opportunities for others. She’s influenced the lives of people as diverse as Native American and Guatemalan schoolchildren, individuals suffering from AIDS, sexual assault victims, outdoor enthusiasts and college students.

One of those college students is Samson Gimui — a 20-year-old Ugandan who is studying at UW-Eau Claire — his father’s alma mater — thanks to a scholarship Hilfiker created that’s paying his tuition and fees for four years.

“I had no idea I’d ever have the chance to move to another country,” Gimui said. “My father returned to Uganda after college because his mother was sick. Then the government was taken over and it became hard to travel. It’s not easy to get to America.”

Hilfiker created the scholarship after a trip to Zambia and Zimbabwe left her wishing she could provide a young African the opportunity of an American college education. She asked the UW-Eau Claire Foundation to help her establish a scholarship.

The Foundation sent letters to 14 known alumni who live in Africa, asking if they had children or grandchildren who wanted to attend their alma mater. They soon heard from Joab Kiboma Gimui, a 1970 graduate who came to UW-Eau Claire through a government-sponsored exchange program. He wrote that it was his dream that his children study in America, but he didn’t have the resources to send them and the government programs no longer existed.

“When I read Kiboma’s letter, I knew this was it — his son, Samson, was the student I wanted to help,” Hilfiker said.

When Samson got off the plane in Minneapolis, Hilfiker was at the airport to greet him along with his host family and roommate’s family. She’s helped him settle into American life, visiting with him in Eau Claire and inviting him to her home in Minnesota. The time they’ve spent together has been fun for both of them, she said, laughing as she described his reaction when she took him on an ice-covered pond.

“I’ve been to Africa three times, and on every visit I’ve met people who have touched my soul,” Hilfiker said. “Everyone knows of the problems in Africa — the poverty and AIDS. But not everyone knows the wonderful kindness and openness of the people.”

Gimui says the same is true of Hilfiker, whom he calls one of his “American moms.”

“Even though she lives 90 minutes from Eau Claire, she makes sure everything is going fine with me,” Gimui said. “She’s helped me make some decisions, decisions that will affect my future.”

Kiboma Gimui’s determination to have his son study in America demonstrates the strength of the connections made through international experiences, Hilfiker said.

“It’s been more than 30 years since he’s been here, but he’s still doing everything he can to support his son at UW-Eau Claire,” Hilfiker said of Samson’s father. “That’s why travel is so important — you want to support people you’ve come to know.”

Hilfiker also created the Mary Roelli Hilfiker Experiential Education Award — which provides $1,000 to UW-Eau Claire students who design an exceptional community service project that needs additional funding — because she believes that a college education involves more than what’s learned in the classroom.

“During college you should put yourself in situations that force you to adapt and change and grow,” Hilfiker said. “I was in college in the ’60s, which was a time of great student activism. There was so much happening and it was such a dynamic time. Some of the greatest lessons I learned were outside the classroom.”

UW-Eau Claire art major Kristin Norberg, a recipient of Hilfiker’s experiential education award, used the money to teach art to schoolchildren in Guatemala.

“This award helped me make my dream a reality,” said Norberg, noting that doing service work in Guatemala had been a longtime goal because her mother was born there and her parents met there when her father was a Peace Corps volunteer. “Without the award, I would have had to work much longer before I’d have had the resources to organize a project like this.”

Trained as an educator and guidance counselor, Hilfiker began her career as a middle school teacher in Madison. After earning her master’s degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she accepted a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a home living specialist at Keams Canyon School in Arizona. Hilfiker found the job challenging but rewarding.

“At the time, the Hopi were the most religiously traditional people in the United States,” Hilfiker said, noting that she was invited to traditional ceremonies that few people get to observe. “Navajo students chitchatted away in their native language and assumed I understood them. But they were delightful, wonderful kids.”

Six years later, Hilfiker moved with the BIA to Alaska, where she worked as a senior guidance counselor at Mount Edgecumbe Boarding School.

“As I look back at my career, my work in Alaska was the most rewarding,” Hilfiker said. “All educators hope and dream that they’ll make a difference in the lives of their students. Several of my former students are now teachers helping to preserve the Yupik language.”

Hilfiker eventually left the BIA but continued her career as an educator and counselor, working in settings as diverse as a men’s prison in Wisconsin and an American military base along the demilitarized zone in the Republic of Korea.

“I was working within sight of North Korea,” Hilfiker said of her federal service assignment in Korea. “I lived in a military camp and assisted soldiers in their education as a guidance counselor and education director. Military living was new and interesting.”

Hilfiker extended her stay in Korea so she could be there when the country hosted the 1988 Olympic Games. As an Olympics volunteer, she helped Koreans improve their English skills so they could work as translators during the games. She was named among the top 100 Olympic volunteers.

Having fulfilled her dream of living abroad, Hilfiker returned to the United States and continued her federal service work, first in Los Angeles and then in Minneapolis. She later returned to the BIA, this time as an education specialist working with 12 schools in six states and with 34 tribes.

“I liked the last 15 years, but the work was more administrative and I prefer to work directly with students,” said Hilfiker, who retired from the BIA in June after special assignments in Albuquerque, N.M., and Washington, D.C.

In her retirement, Hilfiker said she will continue her involvement in politics and in the many community projects she’s affiliated with in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“I’ll never run for public office, but I admire politicians,” Hilfiker said. “They put themselves out there knowing they’ll be criticized and constantly challenged. Politics is a passion. That passion is one of the ongoing influences of my years at UW-Eau Claire.”

Hilfiker also focuses her time, talent and money on numerous environmental and social issues. She has biked from Minneapolis to Chicago to raise money for AIDS service organizations; has canoed the Mississippi River to raise public awareness about the river’s health and uses; and supports and participates in an annual race in her hometown of Rice Lake to support the Tuscobia and Ice Age trails (Hilfiker’s mother, Hulda, was among Tuscobia’s creators). She also serves on boards for such organizations as the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, City of Shoreview (Minn.) Foundation, Shoreview Historical Society, and the Shoreview Parks and Recreation Commission.

“I’ve always gotten as much out of volunteer situations as I’ve put into them,” Hilfiker said. “I get to meet new people and enjoy new experiences.”

Not one to ever truly retire, Hilfiker recently took on a new position as associate education and school improvement specialist for the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW-Madison.

Hilfiker also plans to continue her travels. She hopes to visit Tibet or Bhutan and Iceland sometime soon. She would like to go to England but says — with a laugh — that that trip can wait because it’s “an old ladies” trip.

“I travel for the pleasure and excitement I find in meeting new people and seeing new places,” Hilfiker said. “I know how gracious people are all over the world. People in financially poor and remote areas have much to teach us.”

Judy Berthiaume is director of the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.


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