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Kevin Woster

Kevin Woster

Over the years, I’ve written more than 700 columns for the Rapid City Journal. And I’m pretty sure Ray Hillenbrand had a favorite.

It was the one where I admitted that I was wrong about Main Street Square.

“I liked that column,” he said to me once when we stopped to chat on Main Street across from the square. “And you really were wrong, too.”

I really was.

Not illogically so, however. There was pretty good reason for skepticism about the Main Street Square project.

Who really believed, after all, that a downtown ice-skating rink in the winter and interactive fountains and a grassy concert venue in the summer, all surrounded by shops and original sculptures and hosting a variety of movies and fairs and festivals, could succeed?

Ray Hillenbrand, for one. And he was the one who really mattered.

There have been some stutter steps, of course, with the square. Some businesses didn’t work out. Some adjustments were needed. Some financial assistance has been required.

But it turned out to be a great idea. I had to admit it one winter night as I looked out from a second-story window of the Rapid City Journal down at the clean, well-lighted place across the street. It was packed with people and color and energy, as skaters spun and slid and shuffled across the ice.

That led to my column, which led to Ray’s “I-told-you-so” smile that day on the sidewalk.

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I thought of that smile Tuesday morning during Ray’s funeral mass at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. The lead celebrant was Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a close friend of Ray’s who some years back served as bishop of the Diocese of Rapid City.

Chaput had joined the Hillenbrand family for Ray’s last days, his final hours, on the campus of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. From his hospital bed, Ray gave the archbishop a three-page, single-spaced, typed letter to the community. It offers guidance on how we should move forward without one of our most generous, influential leaders.

And Ray was a leader, even though he avoided the spotlight and worked his community magic as anonymously as possible, quietly putting his money where his heart was. Beyond Main Street Square, he sent millions of dollars into our community through smartly targeted donations to charitable causes and essential services.

Working on a vital project or indispensable initiative? You might have received an envelope mailed unceremoniously with a check inside. Maybe it was for thousands, or tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maybe there was a simple note: “Use this for good in our community.”

To the very end, Ray Hillenbrand was working for that good. In the letter read by Chaput, Ray said a community’s heart is its attractions and facilities, but its soul is its people.

“Who they are, what they stand for, how they care for one another,” he wrote.

Through that caring, Ray became the foundation of the One Heart campus for the homeless and the non-profits that serve them. One Heart is being developed next to the county’s existing Care Campus, which Ray also helped with a hefty check or two.

In his letter, Ray offered three key principles for us to follow in making Rapid City “the most caring community of its size in the nation.”

1) All lives have equal value. 2) We take care of our own. 3) We help people in need to create a sense of self worth and build healthy, productive lives.

It’s a lot to ask of a community, but Ray had faith in us. And I’m not going to doubt that faith again.

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Kevin Woster writes a blog and offers radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing kevinwoster@rushmore.com.

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