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Memories made along the lakeshore: Local shares love for park bench dedication

MARQUETTE — Sometimes you meet a friend in the most unlikely of ways, like sharing a park bench.

Richard Hillier, 88, of Marquette, has shared many moments and stories with the passersby of Picnic Rocks who unknowingly sat on “his” bench, or the city bench dedicated to him along the lakeshore.

It all started when Hillier returned to Marquette shortly after the passing of his wife and met up with an old friend, Joyce Laurich.

“We were walking along the bike path and we sat on one of those benches. I happened to mention to her that I wouldn’t mind having one of these benches instead of a tombstone, and I said it one time. And she secretly called all my kids,” Hillier said.

On Christmas day of 2006, Hillier unwrapped the plaque reading “In honor of Dick Hillier and family” that would eventually become mounted on the bench.

The plaque dedicating a bench at Picnic Rocks to Richard Hillier is pictured. Since receiving the bench as a Christmas present in 2006, Hillier has collected many park bench stories from passersby. (Journal photo by Trinity Carey)

“They wrapped up that plaque and gave it to me and it kind of shook me up that night, because it totally caught me by surprise but it turned out to be a lot of fun because over the years I met a lot of people there and had fun times telling ’em it was my bench,” Hillier said.

The bench was the perfect “practical gift” as Hillier describes it. His son Jay Hillier said he couldn’t think of a better gift for his dad who once walked to Picnic Rocks every day when he lived within its proximity. For around $1,000, a plaque was purchased and a place for the bench was picked.

“He has had the most wonderful time with that bench,” Jay Hillier said. “People will be sitting there, he’ll go sit with them and meet these people from all around the world, it’s unbelievable. The plaque on it actually has his name on it, so he says, ‘I don’t know if you know, but you’re actually sitting on my bench’ and that’s his introduction.”

The importance of the bench to Richard Hillier is heard in his stories of the bench throughout the years and in the photos of it placed around his home. It’s a conversation starter and a “special part of his life,” said his daughter-in-law Pam Hillier. He’s a social man with a lot of pride for Marquette and the bench lets him share that with others, she added.

“He knows so much about the town and the history and he loves to share what he knows, so I’ve learned so much from him just since I’ve been with Jay,” Pam Hillier said. “He comes to our house every Sunday morning for breakfast and during that hour I learn something about Marquette I bet you every week that I didn’t know. He doesn’t plan to be that way he just is, just very knowledgeable, he’s bright and just a wealth of knowledge and he’s interested in other people; he likes to learn their stories.”

Richard Hillier’s bench rests at Picnic Rocks and overlooks the lakeshore. (Journal photo by Trinity Carey)

But the Hillier family gets just as much joy out of the bench as Richard does.

“I think it means more to us because of the enjoyment that we hear from his stories because it seems like every time we get together he has a bench story,” Jay Hillier said. “It’s kind of a chuckle that we always have a story about the bench and all the people he’s met.”

Richard Hillier said he often meets people from around the country who are visiting the area or have children attending NMU. He’s even made a close friend from the bench — a seasonal city worker named Randy Smefsaert.

Hillier’s first bench was washed away in a lakeshore storm. After the bench was replaced and relocated, Smefsaert has helped tend to the bench and move it further from the lakeshore every time it is shifted by the weather.

Hillier and Smefsaert have come to know each other well during their lunch breaks on the bench exchanging recipes, and still walk together at the Superior Dome every morning.

Aside from the friendships made and stories shared on the bench, it’s also a memory of Hillier that will remain in his favorite place and a place special to his family.

“I grew up in Marquette. We as kids played there a lot,” Richard Hillier said. “In fact, one of my older sisters moved out west. She was out there for a long time and when she passed away, her request was to put her ashes at Picnic Rocks.”

But Richard Hillier’s favorite part about the bench is “telling people it’s my bench,” he said with a laugh.

Those interested in dedicating a bench to a loved one can contact the City of Marquette Department of Public Works/ Parks & Recreation Maintenance Department at 906-228-0444.

Trinity Carey can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is tcarey@miningjournal.net.