Becca Hildum mirrors her father’s style when she describes how he would have told his own tale, “The Story of Rocci Hildum.” The Wenatchee storyteller and social activist would have drawn in his audience with expressive hands and resonant voice, and make them laugh with his quirky sense of humor.
“He wouldn’t talk about any of the bad things,” the 23-year-old said. “He would talk about his love of La Verne (a university in California). He never liked school until he went to La Verne. He would talk about his love of peace and social justice, and taking care of people, and the earth.”
His wife Alice remembered his storytelling creed: “He would always say, ‘All stories are true, some of them actually happened.’ ” He meant that every story has a kernel of truth that speaks to everyone differently, even the narrator.
“He always encouraged people to go home and tell their stories to each other, and to their kids so they could pass it on,” she said.
In his obituary, Hildum wrote the story’s ending as he would have had it: “Skidding sideways across the threshold to the next leg of the journey, chocolate in one hand, a dark microbrew in the other, body thoroughly used up and totally worn out, screaming, ‘Whoo hoo, what a ride.’ ”
Hildum died Jan. 14 at age 56, nine years after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. While in hospice, he wrote his own eulogy, too, but left the ending open for his friends and family to finish at his memorial Saturday at Sunnyslope Church.
A California native, Hildum moved his young family to the area 20 years ago to escape San Diego schools and follow his college friend Ken Neher, who married a Wenatchee local. Over two decades, Hildum became a well-known figure in the community for his many causes. Until last spring, Hildum worked as a social worker, specializing in child welfare. He was one of the founders of the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, and the first recipient of the Wenatchee Valley Civil Rights and Social Justice Award in 2005.
He founded the Cascade Coffeehouse, a nonprofit group that hosted live performance similar to the coffeehouses in Cashmere and Leavenworth. He was also a member of two Toastmasters Clubs, the Cascade Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a local Buddhist group, Write on the River, Sons of Italy, Occupy Wenatchee and he was a regular at the Wednesday peace vigils at Orondo Street and Chelan Avenue.
He discovered his love for storytelling as a stay-at-home dad for Becca, when he took her to the library for story time. The children’s librarian, Rita Salama, invited him to tell a few. From there, he grew into a regionally touring storyteller with radio spots, his own album and a huge local following.
In 2004, Hildum found a lump in his neck long covered by the thick beard he usually wore. It was Stage 4 cancer, and he immediately began a three-month radiation and chemotherapy regimen. Over time, the damage left by the treatment caused him to lose his teeth, and his ability to eat and swallow. Eventually, it took his speech.
“Since the diagnosis, there was the negative side of it, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ ” Alice said. “But he came to terms with it. It didn’t stop him. It made him that much more passionate about doing other things.”
Since Hildum’s death, hundreds of family and friends have reached out to Alice and Becca, offering their support and condolences. As a joke in his eulogy, he thanked all three people who showed up. To the contrary, his family had to move his memorial to a bigger venue to accommodate the 200 people expected Saturday.
“I don’t think he realized the impact on the valley he had,” Alice said. “He was constantly looking for other things to involve himself in that spoke to his soul. The people he collected along the way, they’ve become our blessing because of him.”
Rachel Hansen: 664-7139