“My hands are big, like my father’s,” observed Jennie Hiltel, who otherwise was of delicate stature.
“He worked from dawn to dark on a farm in the Sacramento Valley after he came from Italy when he was 17. He was tall and strong and could lift a lot of beans and barley. Like Papa’s, my hands have served me well.”
So much about Jennie’s life was shaped by her immigrant, agrarian roots. She loved nurturing all living things.
Jennie was one of the founders of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund and barbecue fundraiser in San Luis Obispo after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. She sensed that our community and every community in a tragically divided America needed healing.
A conversation with Jennie invariably involved her holding your hand. No one could say “no” to Jennie’s warm grip, and over the years, Jennie corralled many people to help plan and cook the annual chicken barbecue that serves as the major fundraiser for the scholarship.
Jennie’s friend, Josephine Jesse (“Mama Jo”), had a popular restaurant and oversaw barbecues for Springfield Baptist Church. Mrs. Jesse suggested the benefit chicken dinner that’s still served today.
Jennie and her husband, Ted, came to San Luis Obispo in 1933 when Ted, a UC Berkeley College of Pharmacy graduate, was made manager of a local drug store. In 1940, they moved to Murray Street. Except for some houses on Chorro and Murray, the area was largely surrounded by pasture for some of the many dairy farms that were at the center of San Luis Obispo’s economy.
Jennie’s son, also named Ted, says, “During my youth we owned a horse, a mare named Smokey, that I rode everywhere. Periodically, Smokey would get through the fence in the pasture and wander through the neighborhood. Mom would get a call and we would chase her down the streets and through the yards until we got a rope on her. Later we would go back and fill in the holes on the lawns made by her hoof prints.”
The family grew a bountiful vegetable garden that delighted Jennie. Husband Ted said, “When Jennie came in with a little carrier filled with things from the garden, you’d think she had come in with a million dollars.”
Son Ted remembers, “We always had dogs and cats, but there was an unanticipated addition to our family. The morning after a bad storm there was an obviously injured pigeon sitting on the window sill of our bathroom. Mom took the bird and somehow mended its broken wing and nursed it back to health. She had nailed a cup to the sill and kept it full of bird seed.
“The bird stayed and recovered and continued to be there every morning for years. She would only let Jennie touch or hold her. Mom was a ‘bird whisperer.’ ”
Liz Hill, Jennie’s oldest granddaughter, writes, “She wasted nothing. Crusts of bread were never thrown out — in fact there was a drawer full, ready to throw out in the back for birds. There was a coffee can full of coffee grounds and eggshells, kept at the ready to pour on the rose bushes. She let everything in the garden ‘go to seed,’ harvested the seeds, put them in a bag in a shed, and used them for the garden next year.
“Everything and everyone was precious and valuable. She made sure that the MLK scholarships helped kids feel treasured and valuable, and that their talents would not be wasted.”
Jennie was the ideal person to mobilize our community, moving from tragedy to positive action. Liz Lewis was awarded the first MLK Memorial scholarship in 1969. It helped her bloom.
This year, the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship barbecue will be on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 5, from noon to 3 p.m. at 222 Elks Lane in San Luis Obispo. The chicken barbecue includes a beverage. Homemade desserts are available. Take-out orders are ideal for the Super Bowl game.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com.