Machinists support family of deceased member
STANWOOD — In the last months before his death, Machinists Union member Walter Hillbrand worked hard to get his affairs in order, including making repairs to the house where he and his family lived in Stanwood.
There was one project Hillbrand couldn’t get finished before he died of cancer in November — replacing the rotted wooden deck in their back yard. So in January, his union brothers and sisters from Machinists Union District Lodge 751 came out to finish the job.
“It’s marvelous,” said his widow, Vicky Hillbrand. “It’s been a blessing.””
Hillbrand was diagnosed with terminal cancer last July. A 20-year Navy veteran who’d spent most of his career maintaining jets at Miramar Naval Air Station near San Diego, he’d hired on at Boeing in 2007, and moved to Stanwood with his family: wife, Vicki; a daughter, Sabrina, now 14; and son C.J., who now is 12.
He was working as an inspector on a 787 flight test team based out of Victorville, Calif., this spring when his co-workers started noticing that Walter wasn’t well. Doctors at first suspected he’d developed multiple sclerosis, Vicky Hillbrand said, but tests came back negative. “We had so many tests done on that poor guy.”
But when he went in July for routine surgery unrelated to his illness, the doctors found the problem – his liver was riddled with cancer. “It was kind of like a mistake they found it,” Vicky Hillbrand said. “It wasn’t like he was sick or something.”
Friends from work had put the Hillbrands in touch with District 751’s support staff in Seattle. In November, Machinists Volunteer Program members came out to the Hillbrands’ home to do an estimate on how much lumber would be needed to build a wheelchair ramp for Walter, to help him get in-and-out of the house for his chemotherapy treatments. The MVPs, as they’re called, specialize in building wheelchair ramps for homebound people.
The cancer was going to take him eventually, but the Hillbrands’ goal was to use chemotherapy to give him extra time, and maybe even get him healthy enough to return to work for a while, Vicky said. “We thought he’d last a lot longer than four months and one day.”
But the cancer didn’t cooperate, and within a week of the MVPs’ visit, Walter Hillbrand was dead at age 56.
With his death, the wheelchair ramp was canceled. But the MVP Committee still thought it was important to do something to help the family of the fallen Union brother.
“He’s gone, but his family is not,” said Garth Luark, who is the Health & Benefits Coordinator for District Lodge 751 in Seattle and an MVP Committee volunteer.
The Hillbrand’s deck was a shambles. A poor design had led to widespread rotting across the wooden surface, to the point it wasn’t safe to walk on it.
“When he got back to work, they were going to replace it; they just didn’t have the money to do it then,” Luark said. “It was unfinished business that he left behind.”
So the Machinists decided to finish it for him. Union staff in Seattle donated cash to pay for the decking materials, and for the family to pay off some bills at Christmas time. Then about a dozen Machinists Union MVPs turned out on Jan. 15 to tear out the old deck surface and replace it with a new one. They finished the job that afternoon.
“It’s made a world of difference,” Vicky Hillbrand said. “We can go out there, now.”
Vicky Hillbrand said she’s been touched by the support she’s received, from the union and the community. She said she’s determined to make a new life in Stanwood with her children.
“I believe God put us here in Stanwood for a reason,” she said. “This is a great community, and a lot of people have come to help us out.”
The Machinists were glad to help, Luark said. “We’re all family,” he said. “We don’t leave each other hanging.”
You can find video of the deck-rebuilding project on the District 751 YouTube channel: www.YouTube.com/IAMBuildingCommunity.
Originally formed in 1935 to represent hourly workers at Boeing, Machinists Union District Lodge 751 now represents more than 26,000 working men and women at 44 employers across Washington, Oregon and California. In 2010, District 751 volunteers donated close to 6,200 hours of community service around Puget Sound and raised more than $276,000 for Guide Dogs of America, the union’s charity of choice.
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