A maverick and visionary, Ray Hillenbrand was working for "the least of them" until the very end

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on

Someday on my death bed — unless, of course, I happen to enter the Great Beyond falling face first into a duck slough or tumbling into a trout stream — I hope I can come close to the inspiring way Ray Hillenbrand departed this world.

He was working for others to the very end.

The 84-year-old Rapid City businessman and philanthropist was still trying to make his hometown a better place as his time on earth ticked away in a hospital bed on the Mayo Clinic Campus in Rochester, Minn.

He still believed Rapid City could become “the most caring community of its size in the nation.”

We know this because during Ray’s funeral mass last Tuesday, Archbishop Charles Chaput, a former Rapid City bishop and good friend of Ray’s who now runs the archdiocese of Philadelphia, read from the three-page, single-spaced typed letter that Ray handed him on his last day there at Mayo.

It was a bit of a road map forward for this community, without our good-hearted leader in love.

Among other things, the letter offered a simple path forward as a community based on three fundamental principles:  1) All lives have equal value. 2) We take care of our own. 3) We help our people in need to create a sense of self-worth and build healthy, productive lives.

Ray Hillenbrand went to his eternity living and believing those principles. And the final funeral-mass prayer by Archbishop Chaput was that the community of Rapid City would continue those beliefs and the work they inspired, as Ray would hope and expect.

Amen to that.

 

Picking up the work of an extraordinary philanthropist

Which is not to say it will be easy. Ray Hillenbrand was a tough act to follow. He was an extraordinary philanthropist who, unlike many who give generously, didn’t want his name on buildings or his face in the news. So when the construction of the county Care Campus came up short of funding for the floor with the residential-treatment beds, Ray quietly covered the difference to the tune of $2.2 million.

It was among the worst kept secrets in Rapid City, even though county officials tried.  They were still trying last month when I toured the Care Campus with Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom and asked: ‘Are you finally saying who the anonymous donor is, since just about everybody knows?”

I grinned. Thom smiled, cautiously.

“I know,” he said. “But we want to honor the wishes of the donor to remain anonymous. So I’ll leave it at that.”

That was weeks before Ray died. And anyone connected to or well informed about the Care Campus knew the donor was Ray. Anyone who really wanted to know could, without much work, find out with a check of city records.

With Ray gone, I called Thom back on Thursday to see if things had changed with Ray’s requested anonymity, imperfect though it was. Thom was still concerned about honoring Ray’s wish.

“People can find out if they want to look,” he said. “I guess that’s all I’ll say right now.”

But Thom said more than that on a personal level about how much he’ll miss Hillenbrand, who lived on a sprawling acreage in the hills west or Rapid City adjoining the much-smaller acreage owned by Thom and his family.

“We had kind of unique relationship, because we had these projects but also we were neighbors. We’d talk about that, being neighbors,” Thom said. “And he was always so interested in how the family was doing, how I was doing personally, and he was always so genuine about it.”

With Ray’s passing, some in the community have wondered whether his work will continue through the family. Thom says that’s not for anyone but the family to consider, without any implied expectations.

“I’m just so grateful for what he has done, what he and his family have done,” Thom said. “We’ve been so blessed as a community. That’s really what we should focus on, being grateful. They've done so much.”

Just based on what we knew, you can easily come up with more than $10 million in direct contributions from Hillenbrand to city priorities and non-profit programs. And who knows how much it really was? Even Ray probably didn’t know. Probably didn’t care.

That’s how he wanted it left, with his money making a difference in the community without any scorecard and with his name being lost in the work his money was doing.

 

A transplant from Indiana with a vision for Rapid City

It has become sort of cliche to use the term “visionary” to describe people who can see things others can’t. Cliche or not, Ray was a visionary, a transplant from Indiana who was fully adopted by western South Dakota, and vice versa.

He came to Rapid City with his wife, Rita, in 1980, after working in executive positions at the highly successful Hillenbrand Industries, makers of hospital beds and related equipment and funeral caskets. Eight years earlier, they had purchased a buffalo ranch down toward Buffalo Gap, which seemed appropriate. The Triple 7 Ranch continues its sustainably focused livestock production as a family enterprise, under the management of Ray’s daughter, Mimi.

Mimi spoke about her dad at the funeral mass, as did her sisters Gretchen and Heidi. They share common memories, which included recitation of some “Rayisms,” they heard through the years, including:

Do the right thing. Speak from the heart. I was just thinking… Get your hair cut. Just be a good person. God bless America, and California. Just make it cash flow. And if you can’t say something nice it’s probably best to not say anything.

What else was there to say about the man? Oh, plenty.

“He was fair, generous and loving,” Mimi said. “I wish we could all be a little more like that. He has left a huge void, not only in my life but in all our lives. He will be greatly missed. But we will be surrounded by all he left behind.”

Gretchen spoke of her dad’s “generous heart,” their “crazy fishing trips,” his patience and kindness and how he was always there for her when she needed him. And she joked that her dad worried that her daughters were ‘becoming radicals.”

Heidi said downtown Rapid City would notice not just the missing philanthropist but also the “friendly guy in the yellow coat and brown oval glasses walking around downtown with a cane.”

Yeah, that guy. We’ll sure miss that guy. And we’ll miss what he worked for and what he saw in the community and its future.

Chaput called Ray Hillenbrand “a great gift, given by God to the world.” Chaput also told a story about his own upbringing in Kansas, where as a child he had “beautiful toys made by Hillenbrand.”

Well, the toys were caskets, made by the Hillenbrand company. Chaput’s dad was a mortician. “And when he wasn’t watching, my sister and I would play in the caskets.”

So caskets were the initial connection between a philanthropist and an archbishop, one that would take decades to clarify itself.

 

Always a man others went to for help

When Chaput came to Rapid City as a new bishop in 1988, the diocese was in dire financial circumstances. When he asked who might help, the common answer was quick and certain: Ray Hillenbrand.

Calling Ray Hillenbrand a “faithful Catholic and Christian” who was often “jocular” about points of religion, Chaput said Ray helped by serving as a financial adviser and helping to establish the Western Catholic Foundation. It was clear then, Chaput said, that Hillenbrand already had “an incredible relationship with Rapid City.”

That relationship with only strengthen with time and projects and personal involvement and achievements by Ray Hillenbrand.

Saying her father was “spirited, ethical and compassionate,” Heidi Hillenbrand called him a “maverick” who was “never afraid to take on a project no one else thought possible.”

As organizer and first board chairman of Destination Rapid City, he was a driving force in the development of Main Street Square, the nearby Memorial Park Promenade and Legacy Park.

I didn’t think the Main Street Square project was likely to succeed. Taking a parking lot and turning it into an ice-skating rink in winter and a grassy concert venue with adjoining interactive fountains in the warmer months seemed implausible. Add some new shops to old buildings, fairs and festivals and an unusual array of events and an extraordinary border of original stone sculptures and you’ve got a interesting public space.

Sure. But would it work? Could it work? I doubted it.

 

OK, OK, so I was wrong and he was right

The success of the square proved that Ray Hillenbrand had more than a steely determination. He also had a clearer vision than the skeptics, including me. Now I love Main Street Square, which is just across the street from the unique Prairie Edge Trading and Galleries, including the Sioux Trading Post. The popular, successful downtown business allowed the Hillenbrand family to establish itself in the heart of the city, and reach out from there.

With an amazing assortment of Native American artwork and books and merchandise, the store is a magnet for Native people and non-Natives who purchase the artwork and have a hunger for more information the Native American culture, arts and history. 

Ray, who once managed casinos for Native American tribes, also promoted Native American arts in ways that awakened the art world and inspired and supported Native artists. He maintained relationships throughout the Native culture, including Natives people among the homeless population in Rapid City.

Which is where his big heart really found its home.

He was a soft-spoken leader in developing and funding a project to help the homeless with housing and counseling and job and education assistance on part of the old National American University campus downtown.

When it opens sometime in 2020, the One Heart Campus will work in conjunction with the county Care Campus next door to provide a multi-layered system of care, treatment, training and assistance for the homeless and addicted now living on the edge of society, and sometimes dying there.

It will seek to get the hidden homeless, including hundreds of children, off of other peoples couches and out of packed motel rooms and in some cases even vehicles, and into dependable shelter and doorways to something they can truly call home.

Ray Hillenbrand donated millions in both projects, just as he kicked in big time to Main Street Square. But he’d rather nobody knew that. So now that he’s gone, should that anonymity change? It has already been suggested that Main Street Square should be renamed Ray Hillenbrand Square.

It would be fitting, but would it be appropriate? Is that what Ray would want? It’s another question that must be left to those who knew him best and loved him most, his family.

Meanwhile, the rest of us should consider how Ray spent his last hours on earth and how he would want and expect us to spend the life we have ahead of us, however long it will be. 

“It’s up to all of us to carry the spirit of Ray into the world and make it a better place,” Heidi Hillenbrand said.

It’s a call to action of biblical proportions, Archbishop Chaput said, pointing to the Gospel reading from Matthew that was used in the mass, a part of which reads: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

Ray Hillenbrand lived that Gospel message.

“Ray, more than anything else, expressed his Christian commitment by his help for the poor,” Chaput said.

In particular, the last years of Ray Hillenbrand’s life were focused on doing for “the least of these,” in ways he believed could change the community and set an example for the state and even for the nation.

But now he’s gone. And what comes next is up to us.

It’s pretty clear what Ray would expect.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.