Remembering Jim Hilyar: all heart

At first glance, one could not help but notice that former Oakdale police detective Jim Hilyar was a large man. Yet, according to Captain Bill Hutton, a longtime friend and partner of the 20-year police veteran who died on Jan. 21 at age 65, Hilyar’s size and stature could not compare to the enormity of his character.

“Jim was a real big guy, but I’ve always told people that 90 percent of him was heart,” said Hutton, who worked under Hilyar’s guidance for the last seven years of the decorated officer’s two decades on the force.

In particular, Hutton recalled his former “mentor’s” habit of finding ways to help someone in need, even if he was a lawbreaker that Hilyar was incarcerating. Often, after a burglar or thief related to the detective the circumstances that led to his mistakes - that he was “down and out” and didn’t know where to turn - Hilyar would make sure that the individual left the police station with some cash he would produce from his own pocket.

Once, a truck driver who had been given a traffic ticket by Hilyar, wrote the officer a letter thanking him for debunking the stigma that police officers were disrespectful and unsympathetic.

“Jim was very well respected for his talents and because he would do anything for anybody,” Hutton said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a bad or poor word about Jim, even from the ‘bad guys’ he put away.”

Hilyar’s generosity and empathy helped him become one of the most revered police officers in Oakdale before his retirement in 1993, and led to his being named Police Officer of the Year in 1986 as well as once earning the Silver Star for Bravery. But for his daughter Jeanne Dickhausen, the oldest of Hilyar’s five children, the scope of her father’s influence on those around him was not fully clear to her until she became an adult.

“I remember as a child thinking to myself, ‘How is it that when we go somewhere, everyone seems to know Dad?’” she wrote in the online guestbook where a tribute page has been set up to honor Hilyar. “Now I know the answer to that question. It was because Dad had touched all of these lives and all of these people had the privilege of being the recipient of one of Dad’s many acts of kindness.”

A top cop

One particularly memorable instance of Hilyar’s character took place in the early 1970s during a police chase and standoff on Highway 36. A man had abducted his estranged wife and was holding her at gunpoint while speeding down the highway. Hilyar was able to stop the car, which the man exited still threatening to shoot the woman, Hilyar and a Washington County deputy.

Hilyar unflinchingly told the man that he could do what he wanted but that Hilyar would not shoot him. Meanwhile, the woman was able to escape and Hilyar helped her safely into his vehicle. When the gunman tried to escape in his car, Hilyar and the deputy shot out the man’s tires and he was apprehended down the road.

The incident earned Hilyar the Silver Star for Bravery awarded by former Police Chief Ron Wagner.

“He was an absolutely outstanding employee ... and a good man,” recalled Chief Bill Sullivan, who had been at his position for about six years before Hilyar retired from Oakdale. “He was very supportive in helping me get settled in here.”

Sullivan also noted Hilyar’s acclaimed work with young people in the community, for which he was given the Minnesota Distinguished Service to Youth Award. In particular, Hilyar was very active in the Boy Scouts of America, even after his four sons were no longer in the organization. That involvement earned him the two highest distinctions given locally for leadership: the Bronze Pelican Award and the St. George Award.

“Jim was very loyal to the city and the organization and was a very hard worker,” Sullivan said. “He was old-fashioned in the sense that he had a total loyalty to the organization and understood that he had input but once a decision was made, that was it.”

In an interview with the Review from when he retired (20 years to the day since he began in Oakdale), Hilyar related that he had been influenced by a policeman he met when he was in the third grade and growing up in South St. Paul. While a work crew was changing the traffic light at the intersection of Grand and Concord streets, the police officer, after talking with the inquisitive Hilyar, allowed the young man to control the lights with a cord from the sidewalk.

“The policeman would let me hold it and tell me when to change the lights,” Hilyar had said.

“Law enforcement was everything I thought it would be,” he continued. “While I look forward to new challenges, I’ll never forget this experience.”

A large legacy

Hilyar brought his genial personality and benevolent spirit to a number of other avenues after his work as a detective. He spent several years as a financial advisor and, more recently, helped to transport patients between medical facilities when they needed relocation.

Hutton said a friend of his mother’s met Hilyar through that service and “raved” about his caring and personal treatment.

“He had an infectious laugh,” Hutton said when asked what he would miss most about his friend. “It’s just unfortunate. It’s hard to find all the qualities that Jim possessed in one person.”

In addition to the many lives of strangers and friends that Hilyar touched, he played an important role in the lives of his family members, including his wife Belinda, his children Jeanne, Patrick, Jon, Stephan and Joseph, as well as several grandchildren. Stephan, who lives in Wyoming, Minn., followed in his father’s footsteps beginning his tenure as a Woodbury police officer the exact same day that Hilyar retired from Oakdale’s force.

Jon Camp, Hilyar’s second oldest son, helped maintain the site set up by HealthEast when Hilyar was admitted after suffering a massive stroke on Jan. 14. There are several pictures of Jim and his family as well as over 1,000 messages left by friends and loved ones after his death.

“I always knew my dad was a good man. As a child, I can remember just wanting to be near him because in his presence you felt safe,” wrote Jeanne, who shared her White Bear Lake home with her father the last few months of his life. “Partly that was because of his physical size, but I think more than that it was because of his emotional size and his ability to surround you with love, respect and kindness.

“Time and time again, I would see my dad freely giving of himself without asking for anything in return.”

Hutton said he wished Hilyar hadn’t retired as early as he did. The police captain laughed as he remembered going on police surveillance assignments with Hilyar and sharing popcorn and apples - their “surveillance diet”.

“Because of his size, people were either intimidated or frightened by him,” Hutton said. “But as soon as you talked to him for 10 seconds, you knew he was a big ol’ teddy bear.”

And in the memories of those who knew him, it is the size of Hilyar’s heart that has left the most lasting impression.

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