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Bill Hill, literary adventurer and downtown fixture, retires from the public library

It's William Hill's voice that you hear on the main library phone line. He is retiring from the Grand Rapids Public Library in July. Before there was Google (or even Alta Vista!), there was Bill.
<em>Bill Hill in his native environment.</em>

Bill Hill in his native environment. /JM Hanks

Underwriting support from:

On the condition that...

Bill agreed that I could report our conversation, but only if it was sarcastic and made to sound more exciting and amusing. I have done my best, but journalistic integrity must prevail.

Regular patrons of the downtown public library probably recognize William "Bill" Hill by sight if not by name. Sharp-featured, sandy-haired (though sporting a bit more grey these days), he’s like a character actor you’ve seen a hundred times but can’t quite place the name. It's also his voice that you hear on the main library phone line.

Bill is retiring from the Grand Rapids Public Library in July. The rest of the librarians will carry on, but over the course of his 35-year career, Bill has become part of the library experience. His presence at the information desk, calmly holding down one of the tent stakes of downtown civilization, will be missed by many.

Before there was Google (or even Alta Vista!), there were reference librarians. On one pre-Internet occasion, I could only remember a few lines of a poem and wanted the full text. I went to the main library downtown and recited a few garbled lines to Bill.

“It’s something about going quietly among noisy people, and the universe is as it should be.”

“Ah yes,” said Bill. He has a way of taking in each request as if it were the very one he has been waiting for all day. “That’s from Desiderata.”

We walked over to the stacks and with the barest amount of scanning, he pulled out a book of poetry by Max Ehrmann. Read some of the actual lines and you'll understand this feat of reference librarianship:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.

[continuing several stanzas down]

...And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

I never got anywhere close to quoting them, yet Bill was still able to find it for me. Fittingly, these lines, and the rest of the poem, can also characterize his career: I've only seen Bill interact with patrons, acquaintances and colleagues with genuine attention and respect.

I recently had a chance to ask Bill about his plans after he steps back from his daily duties at the library. A shadow briefly passes over his face when he talks about retirement, though he says he is looking forward to opening up his weekly schedule by 50-60 hours.

JH: Before we get to your plans, I want to hear the story about how you hitchhiked at age 18 to meet E.B. White.

BH: Well, you know that every now and then you run across a writer that speaks to you. It was about 1965, and I was on one of my trips to see the U.S. I got a 30-day bus pass for the Greyhound circuit of the country, and combined it with hitchiking.

JH: Hitchiking was very different back then.

BH: Yes, it was very common and more accepted. Anyway, I found myself one day in the vicinity of Blue Hill, Maine. I figured out if I walked for three miles I could get close to where E.B. White lived. The locals were not unfriendly and they seemed to take kindly to me with my little knapsack. Sure enough, I was able to find his farm, and I walked up to the front door and knocked. A red-faced cook met me at the door, and told me no way could I see him. “Mr. White does not accept visitors.” I was stricken. But I what I didn’t see was that E.B White was standing a ways behind her. He said, “That’s all right, let him in.” Well, from then on, he and his wife could not have been more gracious. They stopped everything they were doing, sat down with me and made me tea. They inquired so much after my own welfare I hardly had time to ask them questions. Afterwards, E.B. White took me on a tour of the barn and talked to me about all the animals. I saw the big tree where the dachshund Fred would lie.

JH: That is so amazing.

BH: All this from the man who would duck out to the fire escape if people tried to visit him at The New Yorker. I was shellshocked.

JH: Have you made other author pilgrimages?

BH: Not really, although I have met some other authors through the library.

JH: Any that particularly impress you?

BH: David Small, especially his autobiographical graphic novel Stitches. It just missed winning the National Book Award. I’ve kept in contact with him, and about once a month, we get together to swap stories and tell lies.

JH: I think you need to write this all down. This is barely scraping the surface of your librarianship, and I want to get to this scheme you have going about basketball nets.

BH: It came about because I play a lot of basketball, or I should say I played, as one of knees has betrayed me. Still, I had one of my best years ever last year, beating a lot of guys half my age. It was a good way to go out.

JH: You want to go around replacing missing nets on hoops around the city, right?

BH: Yes. The whole aesthetic is not there when you don't have a net. And a net finishes a park. When it’s torn or missing, it looks like nobody cares. It just seems like a modest goal that I could do. I have calls in to Grand Rapids and Kentwood, to make sure I have permission to do it.

JH: Maybe you should wear some kind of ninja outfit, or a Zorro mask, and be the stealth net-restorer that haunts the night.

BH: That’s an idea. Although the best way to go unnoticed on a basketball court is to wear cutoffs and a t-shirt.

JH: Well, you probably know best. Will you still show up at the library on occasion?

BH: I hope to. I will stay involved in the Summer Reading Program and GRReads.

JH: That is comforting to know. Are you still going to be the voice of the library on the telephone message?

BH: Ha! Yes, I hope I can be.

We continued to talk on wide-ranging topics. I wanted to know his thoughts about the role of the reference librarian in the age of Google, his opinion on some contemporary authors, and his theatrical work, especially his one-man show of Robert Burns. (He touches on these topics in this interview with WGVU's Shelly Irwin.) I asked him if there was anything I hadn’t asked about that he would like to bring up. He looked skyward, and likely inward to whatever marvelous interior universe he inhabits, and said, “Can you make this more interesting? Can you put in a story about a murder?”

“Do you have anything in the works?”

“Nothing in the works, and it would take several drinks to get me to admit to anything else.”

Therein is the call to action. After July and after a day of installing basketball nets, Bill Hill might be persuaded to reveal even more. That seems like a proper progression, and “no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

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