Mary Hill left behind many friends, including a former president

  • Then-first lady Hillary Clinton visits Mary Hill at Mamos Market in Concord in December 1995. Hill, who continued to correspond with the Clintons for years after meeting on the campaign trail, died Saturday, Nov. 11, at age 80. Ken Williams / Monitor file

  • Marie Stevens recalls stories of her aunt, Mary Hill, during calling hours for Hill at Bennett Funeral Home in Concord on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Letters from Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton to Mary Hill, including some handwritten, are seen in a scrap book during calling hours for Hill at Bennett Funeral Home in Concord on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Judy Foy recalls stories of her sister, Mary Hill, during calling hours for Hill at Bennett Funeral Home in Concord on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Photos of Hillary Clinton and Mary Hill from 2005 are seen in a scrap book during calling hours for Hill at Bennett Funeral Home in Concord on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Travis Ingram pointed his index finger hard in my direction and told me not to move.

“I have something to show you,” Ingram said.

In seconds, Mary Hill’s great-nephew had a thick photo album in hand at Bennett Funeral Home, stuffed with letters and invitations from the 42nd president of the United States and his wife.

Bill and Hillary Clinton never lost touch with Hill, and very few people, once they met her, ever did. She died Saturday at age 80 after suffering a seizure last week at a local nursing home, where she lived the last three years of her life.

Her celebration-of-life service Tuesday featured those letters from Bill and Hillary, both of whom had stopped by Mamos Market through the 1990s, when Hill worked the register.

And while her connections to the leader of the free world made for a nice column by itself, people I met at the service made sure I knew that the story of Hill went far beyond the powerful people who gravitated toward her.

She was the aunt and great-aunt who got down on her knees in the sand and played with the kids; the one who never told mom that her child had burned the pan after leaving the s’mores in the oven too long; the one who helped the kids with their book reports, going so far as to read the material herself.

“She treated everyone individually, at their own level,” said Ingram, who’s 28 and lives in Concord. “It didn’t matter if you were the president or Joe Schmoe. You’d walk into the store and she’d want to know about that person and always wanted to learn about that person.

“And then they came back again and again.”

Yes, they did. The president. The first lady. Me. You. lots of people.

“The president came back numerous times and would ask, ‘Can we stop and see Mary?’ ” said attorney Terry Shumaker, a longtime Democratic strategist. “He stayed in touch with her through both terms.”

The Clintons and John McCain and other political heavyweights who swung by during primary season liked Hill because her roots, her down-to-earth nature, came through loud and clear, along with her strong intellect and passion for politics.

Hill and her two sisters, Judy Foy and Martha Ruddy, grew up on a farm in Loudon, off Route 106, where they chased chickens to funnel them into the coop. And their father, Leonard, was an elected official, a comptroller who never minded when Hill protested against the establishment, despite his position of power.

“He’d say, ‘Good for her,’ ” Foy said. “He stressed independence. He taught us not to be intimidated, that everyone put their pants on one leg at a time.”

Hill graduated from Keene State College and taught kindergarten, here and in Syracuse, N.Y. Foy said Hill met a man there, but it didn’t work out. She said at that point romance left her life, replaced by books and family and work and people.

“She made it a point to make every person feel special, like they were one of a kind,” said Brenda Rines of Concord, Hill’s niece. “She was such a good listener.”

Shumaker knew Hill when his law office was next door to Mamos Market, the headquarters for Hill’s welcoming nature and where she had television forever tuned to C-SPAN. He brought Bill Clinton there in October 1991, when the Arkansas governor was campaigning for president.

‘They hit it off immediately,” Shumaker said. “They were both into hugs, and her knowledge of politics was very deep.”

From there, Bill and Hillary stopped by the market through both campaign seasons leading to the White House. Former Monitor photographer Ken Williams captured Hillary and Hill locked in a joyful moment, each with their arms outstretched, a Secret Service agent staring in the background and candy surrounding Hill, showing the cozy nature of the store.

And Hillary mentioned Hill during her own campaign speech in 2007, on a perfect Labor Day weekend afternoon at the State House plaza.

It’s easy to assume, of course, that the Clintons used Hill as a prop, a photo opp, a campaign strategy to show their down-home spirit and grab some votes.

But Bill called Hill from Air Force One, and that book Ingram showed me included inaugural invitations to Hill, and Christmas cards and letters from Bill and Hillary.

“I deeply appreciate your advice about the State of the Union Address,” read one letter from Bill, “and I will carefully consider your suggestions.”

Another read, “I want to thank you for your good wishes following my recent surgery. It was very thoughtful of you to write.”

That one was written in 2005, five years after Bill had left office.

“It was a very authentic friendship,” Shumaker said. “I’ve been part of many campaigns, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Hill’s welcome mat at Mamos Market ended with her retirement about 10 years ago. She moved into a nursing home three years ago. Her energy stayed high, and her time with family remained constant.

“Every time I was home from college I’d go see her,” said Madelyn Rines, Hill’s great-niece and a student at the University of New Hampshire. “We’d have random family dinners and we’d go to the nursing home to get her.”

Hill suffered a seizure of some type last week. Doctors assumed it was a stroke. The end was near and testing was never done. The family assumed it was a stroke and took her off life support, leaving just oxygen and morphine.

But true to form, Hill had a nugget of life left in her, giving her family one final chance to see her.

“I went there in the morning and her arm was near her head and she was trying to take her oxygen mask off,” said Marie Stevens, Hill’s niece. “It was her last hurrah.”

She’d reached the end of her campaign trail.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)