Miriam Hill has hobnobbed with presidents, popes and penguins

Miriam Hill has done it all! Here she is with the certificates to prove it.
Miriam Hill has done it all! Here she is with the certificates to prove it.

Miriam Hill has never passed up an opportunity for adventure. Consider that a trip to Antarctica to celebrate her 90th birthday in 2007 barely touches the tip (pun alert) of the iceberg in terms of remarkable things she’s seen and done.

“It’s always been my theory to go anywhere that you have the chance to go,” Hill said.

She certainly has. She has crossed paths with penguins to start her ninth decade, rubbed elbows with two popes, the duke of Windsor, Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower and tooled around New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon at the age of 81.

Hill, a former principal, teacher and guidance counselor who lived in Canterbury for almost 25 years, was one of five Beaver Meadow Village residents honored as the most senior members of the community in August.

“I’ve had a very interesting life, doing all kinds of things,” Hill said.

That may seem a general description, but it’s difficult to find a more specific way to place her varied adventures under one umbrella.

Take, for instance, the fact that she had a relatively private audience with not one but two popes.

Her first papal encounter came during a trip to Europe with a friend in 1952. Her friend was entrusted to deliver a letter to a North American college in Rome and received a pair of passes to a speech by Pope Pius XII. They were told to dress conservatively and to arrive an hour early, but Hill – who said she hates to be late – had them there two hours ahead of time. They wound up among the first of about 100 people to gain admittance and eventually formed a semi-circle with 10 or 12 others to become the first small group addressed by the pope, who spoke “perfect English,” Hill said.

“It was the nicest talk,” she said. “It wasn’t religious. He congratulated us on visiting other countries and said he hoped we would continue to travel and learn.”

Years later, in 1969, her husband’s position as a leader in the savings bank industry in the United States prompted a trip to an international convention in Rome. The Americans were treated to an audience with Pope Paul VI, and though this crowd was much larger, Hill recalls the pope walking directly past them in the aisle and offering the cap off his head to a woman a few rows in front who had brought a different cap to be blessed.

If visits with two popes weren’t enough, happenstance led to Hill sharing a table at the Palm Beach Casino with the duke of Windsor. Hill was visiting Cannes with a group from Boston University and found herself walking the beach with three friends one night. They stumbled upon the casino, and though one of her male friends wasn’t allowed in because he was wearing shorts, she and her companion were welcomed. She headed straight for the roulette table and quickly began amassing chips.

When it was time to cash out, she and her friend headed for the bar for some celebratory champagne.

“We went to the cocktail room and the host said, ‘We don’t have a table for two, but there are two seats available at the end of this other table. Would you mind sitting there?’ It was the duke’s party with two empty seats. He was very friendly, although there wasn’t much talk with us.”

Hill’s hobnobbing wasn’t limited to international religious and political figures. Her husband’s position in the banking field afforded them many opportunities to travel, including a trip to a national convention in Atlanta where then-Gov. Jimmy Carter’s wife held a breakfast for the wives of the bankers. Carter made a brief appearance himself, shaking hands before “going off about his business,” Hill said.

She never actually met Dwight Eisenhower, though she did share a stage with him the night before he was elected. Her neighbor was a senator who was unable to attend the pre-election celebration at the Boston Garden, so Hill wound up with what she was told was a box seat. She arrived later than expected, though, and was directed by a man at the elevator to follow the line of people in front of her.

She did, keeping up as they wound through a hallway and up some stairs in the dark before bursting out – onto the stage in front of the crowd.

Stunned, Hill calmly followed the line of people to three rows of metal folding chairs off the side of the stage, where she wondered how she was going escape.

“I definitely didn’t belong there, but I thought, I’ll just sit here quietly and not draw attention to myself.”

A good plan, until the MC of the event began introducing the people seated in the metal chairs, each of whom stood and delivered a brief address. Hill had to think quickly, but she began shuffling her chair back a few feet at a time when the audience stood to applaud the different speakers, eventually blending in with the Fred Waring Band in the background.

“I was scared to death, but I was able to recapture my senses and enjoy the evening,” Hill said.

Enjoying the situation has never been a problem. So when she was 81 and received an invitation to help General Motors introduce three new cars at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, she was willing to attend. Nobody else from Beaver Meadow would go with her, so she had to talk her husband into going.

When they arrived, they found a course set up with a smooth oval followed by a stoplight, a gravelly section followed by another stoplight and then a soaking wet portion. GM was having the attendees test the braking systems by cruising through each segment as fast as possible. Once a GM representative went, he turned to Hill and said, “your turn.”

“So I did,” she said. “I gunned it up there, hit the brakes, then bounced through the next part. I guess I did all right. I survived.”

Her most recent journey capped a lifelong quest to visit all seven continents. She’d been to six, but decided to celebrate her 90th birthday by completing the tour in Antarctica. She found a Norwegian ship that carried 200 people to Buenos Aires, where they boarded another ship to Antarctica. When the boat arrived, two metal steps were jammed into the ice to allow offloading, and people were given just one hour before they had to get back on board.

“The first thing they said was penguins have the right of way,” Hill said. “We saw hundreds and hundreds of penguins. It was absolutely beautiful there. There were no trees, no buildings, just beauty, blue and white. One iceberg was a mile long.”

It’s been five years since Hill explored Antarctica, and she’s nearing her 30th year at Beaver Meadow, but one thing about her hasn’t changed: Ask her to do something daring, and she’s likely to oblige.

“Whenever anyone wants me to do something, I always say yes,” Hill said.

Keith Testa

Author: Keith Testa

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