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49th Reunion
Saturday August 11th 2018

5:30 P.M.
Location: The VFW Brainerd
309 S. 6th Street
Brainerd, MN 56401


Please check back from time to time for updated information on the location of this and other reunions.

 

 

Remembering Brad Hill

 

by: Michael O'Leary, July 2009

 Bradley K. Hill died on 15 November 2005. He was one of more than 150,000 people who died that day, leaving more than six billion alive.

On that scale, any of us seems insignificant. But on the scale that matters most, that of personal relationships, Brad's death left a big gap.

Some of those reading this will have known Brad well, some a little, and some perhaps not at all. The first group were very lucky. As a member of that group, I would like to give a short personal account. There may be a few factual inaccuracies; please forgive me for those. I don't know all the details of everything I relate below (I left Minnesota in 1977, and the US entirely in 1986). But I think what I write is close to reality, or is at least in the spirit of reality.

I first met Brad only in 9th grade, in 1965, at Franklin Junior High School in Brainerd, as I was a product of parochial elementary school and he of the public schools. We became friends, although not particularly close, in high school. Brad was not at all athletic which at some times in some places is a high school handicap. He also had very poor eyesight, not corrected with glasses, which caused him to read with books a few inches in front of his eyes, and made things like a drivers license only a dream (more on this later). But he already clearly possessed two lifetime traits – a very intelligent inquisitive mind, and a great sense of humor. He was simply fun to be around.

We became closer friends in college – at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. We lived in the same dorm as freshmen, and began spending a little more time together. Dorm room décor ranged from psychedelic to pigsty, with many variations in between. Brad's room was an oasis of calm, with a carefully tended plant on the windowsill. Whatever your lifestyle, he was the perfect person to have as a neighbor, even at the age of 18.

This was the point when we decided to travel together and how, over time and months in each other's company, I came to greatly respect Brad. We first decided on the classic "grand tour" of Europe, and after freshman year, and a 1970 summer scraping together the necessary dollars, we headed in September to Europe with our $180 two-month EuRail passes (unlimited travel, first-class!), our guide book "Europe on $5 and $10 a Day" (this was a long time ago), backpacks and bedrolls. Nights in Youth Hostels, or when we couldn't find something cheap enough, on the train (sleep 4 hours out, get off, and catch a train back to the starting point for another 4 hours of sleep), eventually covering 17 countries. When we got back and were sharing stories with friends, one of us said, in response to a question, that there was only one time when we truly got angry with each other. The other one of us agreed; only a single bad episode. At which point, of course, we discovered we were talking about two different times, and in each case the other didn't know how upset the first one was. Still, not bad for two and a half months of hardly being out of each other's sight.

With this experience, we took whatever chance we could. We followed this with a drive from Minnesota to Panama in the family station wagon. The ostensible reason was to visit a friend in the Canal Zone, who had "volunteered for the draft", a not-uncommon choice in the early 70s. The Canal Zone was rather calmer than the alternative, and much more conducive to the serious bird-watching interests of this particular friend. This time we talked Steve Kirkhorn into coming along, although it didn't seem to take much talking. Sadly this is the kind of trip that is much more difficult to consider now, camping at random spots along the roads through Mexico and Central America. We were stronger at the end, but the station wagon wasn't. And Brad, interested in everything.

Next it was several weeks in Africa: Kenya, Uganda, Zaire, Rwanda, Tanzania. But at this point Tom Bedard was along for the wild ride. Too many experiences to recount here. But Brad was always the calm voice of reason, even with unpredictable armed soldiers at checkpoints. This was not a person easily ruffled.

Not only did we travel extensively during this time, whenever we could scrape together enough money and time, but we also were off and on roommates. I think the first was in a standard one-bedroom apartment near Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis shared by me, Brad, Steve Kirkhorn, and Tom Bedard. Yes, four (cheap) people can fit in a one-bedroom, if the bedroom is just big enough to accommodate two sets of bunk beds and one desk and still leave enough space to move around. And later, four of us shared an even cheaper, but slightly bigger (2 bedroom) apartment near the University – Brad, me, Steve Kirkhorn, and Dean Lee, a medical school classmate who, with his wife Mary, and Tom and Ancsa Bedard, became part of a group that still gets together -- only now with a big empty space.

By this time, Brad was on his way to graduate school in psychology at U of M, and a post as a graduate teaching assistant. He was already doing research and I believe easily headed for a PhD and an academic career if he wanted. He had developed a strong interest in working with developmentally-disabled kids, and was a developer of a specialized intelligence test, basically a method of objectively determining mental developmental status of kids with developmental delays; sort of an IQ test for mentally retarded children. He became the director of such a school in Minneapolis (Reuben Lindh Learning Center) and, in an example of selflessness, and although a bachelor, he also began caring for in particular one mentally retarded girl, Dana. Many of us got to know Dana and I'm sure many, like me, wondered how long we could manage with the hair-pulling, hitting, and difficult behaviour that had eventually caused her parents, a fine couple, to release her for supervised care. I never heard Brad complain for a minute. He had amazing patience with Dana and supported her unflaggingly right to the end. In the process he became very good friends with Dana's parents. His attention and care had a significant positive impact on Dana's own behaviour, and certainly improved the quality of her life enormously. This was a committed person.

Brad had already, in his early 20s, become a homeowner in South Minneapolis, a working class city neighborhood that suited Brad well. He lived there for the next 30 years, maintaining the house in as perfect condition as it could be. Again the ideal neighbor, and just the kind of person who provides stability and future to any neighborhood. He had plenty of equity in this house when most of us were just thinking about how to get a mortgage, and had established both a stable base and a low-cost lifestyle. This was a practical person.

Two examples, from the houses on either side of him, demonstrating two aspects of his character. On one side were neighbors whose Hispanic son struggled in school. From a young age Brad was a very positive role model in this boy's life. He took him to events, he tutored him, he provided examples of mature, adult stability that I know have guided this boy right into adulthood. Brad was as proud as his parents when the young man graduated from high school. Recently another friend wrote that she visited Brad's burial site, at Lakewood Cemetery next to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. She found the boy, now a young adult, sitting quietly alone, staring at Brad's gravestone.

 

In the house on the other side, two young women had lived together and were also very good friends of Brad's (it was difficult to know him, and not be). They eventually moved out, and a new young family moved in. Brad quickly got to know them well also (he was neighborhood glue). They were friendly and fun people, and quickly started fixing up the back garden (as Brad had done with his too). Brad decided to make up a little story. He said that the previous tenants had moved out under sudden, mysterious circumstances, and that there were dark rumors that one had disappeared altogether. He left no doubt that there were questions of foul play. Meanwhile, he was making use of a plastic, but real-looking replica of a human skull, as they use for teaching purposes in medical schools. He buried this just over the fence on the neighbor's side, in the flower garden that they were planting, knowing they would, at some point, find it. And so they did. In a semi-panic, knowing Brad's story, they rushed over to him to ask what they should do next. Brad couldn't let this play out too long without getting in trouble, but his complicated practical joke had succeeded. This was a patient, and sometimes humorously diabolical person.

So now is maybe the time to describe another powerful part of Brad's experience, and the reason why he left us at too young an age. In medical school we of course learned about a full range of illnesses and conditions, rare and common. One night. late at night, one of us mentioned to Brad that we had learned about a condition that seemed to have many things in common with what we knew about Brad – tall and thin, long limbs and fingers, displaced lenses on the eyes which caused an uncorrectable (at the time) extreme visual impairment. Brad became very quiet. After a few minutes he told us that he had learned, not long before as I understood it, that he had this condition, called Marfan's syndrome, present from birth. Marfan's is genetic, and those with the condition have a 50% chance of passing it to their children. But it also can arise spontaneously, as in Brad's case, without a family history. It is a connective tissue disorder, affecting the joints, eyes, and, unfortunately, major blood vessels like the aorta, and the heart valves. The lifespan for people with Marfans had been, typically, less than 40, because of the weakness of the major vessels.

Characteristically this did nothing to slow Brad. The genetic part made any thought of kids too risky. But if anything it further determined him to experience as much of life as possible. Advances in eye surgery allowed so much improvement that he was able to get a driver's license by his 30s. Brad was also able to "retire" in his 30s, with a house, royalties from his IQ test (which also gave him periodic consultancies, in the US and foreign countries, where his test was adopted), and the benefits of careful investment in the stock market which he followed closely (always an interest in economics). His material needs were few – good cigars, and the capacity to travel where and when he wanted probably topped the list. So travel he did.

Eventually, with careful monitoring it was clear that Brad needed heart valve replacement. My last big trip with Brad was in the mid-1980s, not many weeks after his aortic valve replacement. Not many people in his situation would do so, but we covered Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and (for Brad) Taiwan. Well not completely covered, but a pretty good portion of them. At one point we were staying at the beach in Hua Hin, in Thailand, and a friend came down with various family members to visit (originally a friend of mine, from Public Health School in Hawaii, but in typical Brad fashion, eventually a life-long friend of Brad's). Her young nephew went out into the gently lapping waters, and seemed to have some trouble coping with the waves. Brad ran down and into the water (maybe waist deep), and grabbed the boy and helped him to shore. In the process he got a small cut on his knee, on some rocks. Our friend tenderly nursed this (I have to say relatively minor) laceration. This story grew over the years in Brad's retelling, eventually involving a superhuman rescue effort in pounding surf, and a near-fatal wound in the process, but ultimately a boy who owes his very life to Brad. And maybe, in fact, it's true.

Brad died the day I was about to get on a plane to move from one country to another, in November 2005. I learned about his sudden and surprising death in a phone call, from another old and mutual friend, Tom Bedard. I was just about to move, with my family, from the Pacific islands (on one or another of which I had spent the past 25 years; at that point we were in Guam) to Cambodia. Moving from the Pacific to teeming Asia was a big change, and Brad had played a part here too. A couple of months earlier we were in Minnesota and had one of our regular reunions with Brad and several other old friends, at my brother's house. We were wrestling with the decision of next move, and there were 4 serious prospects: New Caledonia (the French version of Hawaii, in the South Pacific), New Zealand, Australia, or Cambodia. I valued the input of my friends, as this would pretty well plot the course of the rest of my professional life. In sheer attractiveness of living environment, Cambodia was thought to come last. I think most people present agreed with that perception.

But Brad was clear: Cambodia. Ever the adventurer, he had always influenced me in such a way. So we made a decision, packed up, and moved, knowing that Brad would visit, as he almost always did, wherever we lived (Fiji, Micronesia, Hawaii). But then came the call.

Brad had been found at home, when friends Dean and Mary went to pick him up for a medical appointment. No answer at the door or on the phone, and eventually an entry into the house. Brad had died quietly and calmly in bed. We had known that his recent medical problems were more intractable than in the past. He had to have his heart valves replaced some months earlier (pig valves wear out eventually), and part of his aorta as well, and he had not seemed to fully recover. After a long period of not feeling well, eventually he was found to have subacute bacterial endocarditis – a low-level infection of the heart valves which regularly seeds the blood stream with bacteria. It is difficult to diagnose, and difficult to cure. In addition, he had struggled with a painful enlargement of the lining of the spinal cord in his lower back, presumably also because of the connective tissue abnormalities. He also had major surgery for this, which was not fully successful.

These had pulled Brad down more than anything I previously recall. But when we saw him in August 2005 he seemed essentially his normal, lively, and funny self. I was visiting Minnesota with my wife Pakawan and son Sean. We got together one day at my brother's house with many of the friends mentioned above and had a really enjoyable afternoon and evening. We have a picture of all of us taken on the back verandah that has Brad in the center, with an amused grin on his face. It was the last time I saw him.

Brad Hill left behind many friends. Only a few are mentioned here, because they are part of a small circle that we mutually maintained. But there were many more, each of whom could write something similar to this. He maintained life-long friendships with friends from college, and with many international friends cultivated over the years, who he would visit in Thailand, Taiwan, Spain, South America. Although our mutual international travel stopped when our life paths diverged, a colleague of Brad's from years earlier at the University of Minnesota, Dick Weatherman, had many enjoyable and adventurous trips overseas with Brad in more recent years, and became a firm friend. And Brad stayed close to his family, who were steadfast in the final difficult months – siblings Bruce (and Marlene), Dale (and Brenda), Claire (and Rex), and Shelley; his parents Kermit and Bertha in Baxter; and Steve Wessman, and many others who I won't try to mention for fear of missing some who were important parts of Brad's life, and vice versa.

This is just one person's account. Of Brad's many friends, each could share another set of memories and impressions. But I think all would have in common a remembrance of Brad as a person of humor, intelligence, conscience, friendship, and an altogether fine human being.

 We miss him.

Short synopsis of Brad by Mike O'Leary

When Brad Hill died on November 15, 2005, we lost a great person and a great friend.

Brad's untimely death was related to a life-long condition. He learned as an adult that he had Marfan's syndrome, present from birth. Marfan's is genetic, and those with the condition have a 50% chance of passing it to their children. But it can also arise spontaneously, as in Brad's case, without any family history. It is a connective tissue disorder, affecting the joints, eyes, and, unfortunately, major blood vessels like the aorta, and the heart valves. The lifespan for people with Marfans had been, typically, less than 40, because of the weakness of the major vessels.

 

Brad had his medical condition well-monitored over the years, but eventually, in the mid-1980s he required heart valve replacement. This did not slow him at all, and he continued to travel internationally, and maintain many excellent friendships. But in 2005 it was time to have his heart valves replaced again, and part of his aorta as well. After this, recovery was slow. After a long period of not feeling well, eventually he was found to have subacute bacterial endocarditis – a low-level infection of the heart valves which regularly seeds the blood stream with bacteria. It is difficult to diagnose, and difficult to cure. In addition, he had struggled with a painful enlargement of the lining of the spinal cord in his lower back, presumably also because of the connective tissue abnormalities. He also had major surgery for this, which was not fully successful. But again he maintained his positive and, as much as possible, active lifestyle.

 

On the morning of November 15, 2005, Brad was found at home, when friends went to pick him up for a medical appointment. There was no answer at the door or on the phone, so they were able to enter the house. At the age of 54, Brad had died quietly and calmly in bed. His ashes now reside in Lakewood Cemetery, near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. He is very much missed by family and many friends.

 

-Mike O'Leary

 


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