Remembering Helen Hynes Hill: An Interview with InterVarsity President Alec Hill

Alec, our readers are longing to see examples of women who are faithful to their family, their work, and their community. Your mother seems to be a tremendous example of that. Can you tell us about her?

She was a remarkable woman. She grew up during the depression, the last kid, the sixth, of a farming family in rural Minnesota. At 18 she moved on her own to Minneapolis, working full-time and going part-time to school.

At 20 or 21, she saw a small ad from the State Department in the newspaper, recruiting clerical staff. She applied and was one of eight hundred young women sent to Washington, D.C., for training at the outbreak of World War II.

She was sent to Madrid, starting out in the secretarial pool. By 23 she was head secretary to the ambassador to Spain. By the time the war was over she had gone through two ambassadors and had a potential career with the State Department, but decided to return to school.

She finished her degree at the University of Minnesota in two and a half years and took a job out in San Francisco where she met my dad. They married quickly had two boys, and moved to my dad’s hometown of Seattle.

But very quickly, the marriage unraveled. My parents separated for six months, then got together for six weeks before splitting for good. During those six weeks, I was conceived. My father was 55 years old and on his way out. If there was ever a candidate for abortion, I was it.

With the marriage ended, my mom went back to school to get her teaching credentials. She was now our sole support and determined that she had to get a job that would allow her summers off. Teaching was perfect.

Mom dug in and worked very hard for many years, teaching high school Spanish. She was a department head at Roosevelt High School, one of the best public schools in Seattle, for a decade. She taught Spanish primarily, but also French and English. She was a phenomenon. One year, her students won the Washington State Spanish language competitions in four of the five levels. They didn’t place in the fifth competition simply because she didn’t teach that level.

She was a very dedicated, very committed teacher. I remember being dropped off at ballgames and she would have her stack of papers to grade with her. Saturdays and Sundays she would be grading for hours on end.

The other part of the story is that on a modest teacher’s salary, she sent each of us during our high school years to Europe on summer abroad programs. Even more, she sent us all to a private school, Lakeside High. I went to school with Bill Gates, Greg Allen, and Craig McCaw. My brothers and I were half-scholarship kids, but still, I have no idea how she did that on $5,000 a year.

Was she getting assistance from your dad or the family?

She was getting no support from her family or from my dad. We boys were getting Social Security checks because my dad had died by that time.

I understand your mother went on for her PhD.

When she was in her late forties, Mom decided to go for her doctorate in Spanish, something she had always wanted (after returning from Europe, she had been recruited by Stanford graduate school). She had her masters done. She went into the PhD program at the University of Washington and worked on it for a couple of years while she was teaching and then took a one-year sabbatical — a year off — to basically push through and finish up. She learned German in six weeks — this was a brilliant woman.

But when she turned in her work to complete the PhD, the very male-dominated Department of Latin Studies turned it down. My impression is that they put up several hoops very late in the game and her sense was that they knew this would kill it for her. She of course had three kids she had to support and could not spend any more time away from work. It was preposterous how she was handled. Today there would have been an investigation, it just wouldn’t have happened. I was 16 or 17. I never saw my mom weep except for that time. It was so painful, so unfair.

When our oldest, a Harvard law student, would talk with my mom in Spanish on the phone, it illuminated the gross unfairness of my mom’s generation. For my daughter, all doors are open. She can do anything, she can go anywhere, she’s just excelling. But for my mom’s generation it was much harder, much more limited—the range of things she could do. So I think for my mom, there has been a vicarious enjoyment in watching her granddaughters excel, all excelling.

I see from one of their blogs that your daughters were very close to your mother and you indicate she had a profound influence on international students as well.

Mom was very hospitable, which is surprising in light of also being highly intellectual. She loved having people in. When our kids were growing up, every Sunday mom would host a Midwestern roast beef and potato meal, so my brothers and I and all the kids would come. She just loved having the grandkids around. And she had a very special relationship with her granddaughters.

She also hosted an international student club from the high school every year. And we grew up with students from all over the world living with us—from Mexico, Uruguay, and Spain. When I was a child, they were big, and when I got into college, they were younger. I watched twenty plus years of international students in her home. We were just constantly surrounded by languages and other cultures.

When my mom was 55, she had an 18-year-old Spanish student living with her for a year. They got on a Greyhound bus and bought a month pass and traveled eight thousand miles sleeping two out of three nights on the bus and one night in a hotel. That’s my mom.

Not the image of the single mother on her knees by her bedside.

No, she was as tough as they come. Her faith was a little rough, in the sense that her feistiness showed up a bit too often.

What’s interesting is that when my brother, Grant, and I came to faith, it took my mom a few years to welcome the change. Frankly, she was a little wigged out. She labored to send me to an elite high school. I do well, have lots of opportunities, and then—in her view—I throw it all away by attending a little Bible college. She was not happy. But she just bit her lip. In the long run, I went to law school and she was happier with my choices. But it was painful for her to sacrifice for her sons and then seemingly watch them fritter it away.

Later, mom renewed her faith in a deeper way.

Photo: Helen and her sons (Alec is on the left).

Without a father in the home, did she bring in others to help? Did she have support around her?

I do know she prayed that God would provide men in our lives. I know she worked really hard to make that happen. Thankfully all three of us were athletes so we had male role models.

Our neighborhood was wonderful, stable. We lived in the same house and had great neighbors and great public schools through ninth grade [before we went to] Lakeside.

There were hard times. I can’t remember the specific incident, Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts, something where I couldn’t participate because I didn’t have a dad, so that made mom really mad. Somehow in the end, I sort of got adopted by one of the other dads. It was intended to be a wonderful family thing, father and son, but it was painful for a single mom.

It’s really interesting being with a lot of other leaders who do comparable jobs in other organizations. Many come from these wonderful families that are whole; they were discipled and mentored by their parents. I’ll be in conversations with people and they’ll have no idea that I come out of a divorced family.

I think three factors were important for my life: one is obviously the Lord; the next is my mom’s strength; and the third is birth order—being the third allowed me to absorb the best of the entire family.

From your experience growing up with a working, single mother, do you have anything you would like to say to our audience of women who are trying to be faithful to their work and to their families, feeling often like they are neglecting one or the other?

I do want to say, there was a tender side to mom. We had a very close relationship and would talk for hours, especially when I was younger. When I was 12, she asked me to be her executor, so there was a special closeness there. I don’t want to just portray her as a force of nature—she was my mom in every sense of that word.

I think the tension and the advice is really about being consistent and faithful over a long period of time. As parents [and] as professionals, it’s not about us. It’s about our kids. It’s about those we serve and work with. There is a tension and you just have to be faithful over the long term, believing in faith that it will pay off, even though you don’t see evidence in the short run. I mean, Mom had three teenage boys, and she had hope.

Single moms can end up just being overwhelmed, always feeling like they are on the outside, looking in. The piece that is challenging with this generation of young women is the “trying to do it all.” And in a sense my mom did do it all, though of course she could have done more professionally if she’d been given the opportunity. I don’t have an easy answer. I always say that if I can be 80 percent happy with family life and 80 percent happy with work, that’s good. If I get to 100 percent in either, that’s bad, if I get below 50 percent on either, that’s not good either.

Where do you see your mother’s influence on your own life?

When I think in terms of what I owe my mom, I see a great education, a passion for anything international, a love of books. A few weeks before she died at age 91, we were having a long conversation about Spanish authors from the 1930s. Her mind was so sharp. She had such high standards and aspirations for herself and for us.

What is interesting is that two of her sons went on to become college professors and the other is a CPA with an MA in Fine Arts. She instilled in us a love of education, a love of travel, a curiosity, a certain fearlessness. No one comes close to the influence she had on our lives.

When my mom died, we all flew in from around the country. My wife Mary and our two daughters and I were reflecting on their two grandmothers. Our daughters saw their grandmother (Mary’s mom) as the sweetest, most wonderful, easy-going woman. But when Nana (my mom) was mentioned, they said, “We have loving, wonderful feelings about Grandma, but about Nana, we have GREAT STORIES!”

As executor, I’m now processing mom’s estate. I have some of her stuff that I’m working on in the evenings, so I think about her all the time. It’s really hard — there’s such an emotional gap when you lose a single parent. We went through losing both of my in-laws but when it is a single parent, especially one who looms as large as my mom, it is especially hard.

What she might have been if she had been born a couple of generations later, who knows?

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