Lady June Hillary
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Lady June Hillary

Chair, Himalayan Trust; Honorary Director, Grand Circle Foundation

When you're climbing a mountain, it's usually best not to look back. That's the approach Lady June Hillary has taken toward the uphill journey of life. Now 80, she prefers not to dwell on the past, but rather to look forward, toward the adventures and activities that still lie ahead.

But what a life she has led! Her first husband was well-known mountaineer Peter Mulgrew, to whom she was married for 28 years. In 1956, Peter embarked on an 18-month expedition to the South Pole with Sir Edmund Hillary, who had become the first person to summit Mount Everest (with Tenzing Norgay) three years earlier. The two New Zealanders became fast friends.

Giving Back to the Sherpa People of Nepal

His expedition to the "roof of the world" had given Sir Edmund a deep respect and affection for the Sherpa people of Nepal, who had helped him make his successful ascent. It has also implanted a strong desire to improve the harsh conditions under which the Sherpas lived. Living at a high altitude with limited resources, these "cheerful, kind, fantastic people," as Lady June describes them, lacked many of the basics, such as educational and medical facilities.

In the early 1960s, Sir Edmund returned to Nepal to ask what he could do to improve lives. He discovered a need for education in that country, where fewer than half the adults can read, and he began raising money to build a school for the children of Khumjung—the village home of the Sherpas who had assisted him in 1953.

In 1962, he formalized his efforts on behalf of the people of Nepal by founding the Himalayan Trust. The Trust was created to provide an infrastructure to meet the Sherpas' basic needs— education, health care, forestry, monastery repairs, and response to natural disasters. "Ed built what they wanted, not what we thought they should have," recalls Lady June, who, with Peter, was active in the Trust from the beginning. "And the Sherpas helped. That way, when a project was finished, it was theirs. It belonged to the community."

The Hillarys and the Mulgrews did more than fundraising and organizational work for the Trust. They rolled up their sleeves and pitched in, painting, varnishing, and doing whatever task was needed. Lady June remembers one particular project, in which a school was dangerously situated on a steep mountainside. "We undid the rocks one by one and moved them to a better location," she reports. "It was hard work but such good fun!"

Rising from the Ashes of Tragedy

As enjoyable as their work for the Trust was, tragedy loomed for both Sir Edmund and June Mulgrew. In 1975, Sir Edmund's wife, Louise Rose, and youngest daughter, Belinda, were killed in a plane crash en route to the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. The loss devastated Sir Edmund, who fell into a deep depression that lasted several years.

Just four years later, in 1979, Peter Mulgrew was the commentator on an Antarctic sightseeing flight—a job that rotated between Sir Edmund and him—when the plane flew into Mount Erebus, killing all 257 passengers aboard. The crash remains legendary in New Zealand, according to Lady June.

After the tragedies, Sir Edmund Hillary and June Mulgrew remained friends, and Lady June is credited with bringing Sir Edmund out of his depression. Still, it would be many years before friendship deepened into romance. In 1985, then Prime Minister, David Lange, appointed Sir Edmund New Zealand's envoy to India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. June Mulgrew accompanied him as Official Companion. Four years later, they were married.

A Very Special 50th Anniversary

The two were happily married for nearly 19 years, until Sir Edmund's death in January 2008. A family man, Sir Edmund helped to build bonds among the members of the blended family, which included his two surviving children and Lady June's two daughters, Robyn and Susan. Both Robyn and Susan remain active in the Himalayan Trust, and one of Lady June's four grandchildren now serves on the Council.

After Sir Edmund's passing, Lady June herself continued on as chair of the Trust, which, over its 50-year history, has funded more than 30 schools, two hospitals, 30 health clinics, and two airfields. It has also provided grants for higher education, helped rebuild isolated communities, and helped the Sherpa people overcome the hardships of their mountainous environment.

The first of those schools, the Khumjung School (also known as Hillary School as a mark of respect), celebrated its 50th anniversary in May. "I remember that first school was mostly made of aluminum," says Lady June. "Today, it's a campus of 500 students. Its graduates have gone on to become pilots, businessmen, and more. And some of them are even starting to retire!"

A Strong Foundation for Friendship

Among the long-time supporters of the Himalayan Trust is Grand Circle Foundation. In 1992, Alan and Harriet Lewis, chairman and co-chair of Grand Circle Corporation, asked Sir Edmund how they could help in Nepal. His response was swift and definite: help us teach the teachers. Literacy in Nepal was just 26 percent at the time, so hope for the future was pinned to improving education. A grant from Grand Circle Foundation to the Trust helped provide the teacher training Sir Edmund had requested.

In the years that followed, friendship grew between the Lewises and the Hillarys. "There hasn't been much physical contact, but we have kept in touch," says Lady June. "It's been a very happy relationship, very fruitful." She and Sir Edmund were even guests at Grand Circle headquarters in Boston in the past, which Lady June enjoyed very much. It was during one of these visits that Sir Edmund called the teacher training the Foundation had provided "one of the most successful programs of the Trust. We expected 30 to 40 teachers, and 188 showed up!"

An incident that occurred during a visit to Boston further illustrates for Lady June the Lewises' "hassle-free" support of the cause that's closest to her heart, the Himalayan Trust. Grand Circle's headquarters building is located near Fort Point Channel, and Lady June and Harriet Lewis were strolling the waterfront promenade when Lady June asked her friend for a donation to the Trust. "How much do you need?" Harriet asked. Lady June asked her for $20,000. "OK," Harriet said. "Just like that!" Lady June marvels.

Grand Circle Foundation has since made another donation to the Himalayan Trust in Sir Edmund's memory, bringing its total contribution to $556,000.

In tribute to her friends, Lady June penned the Foreword to the Lewises' inspirational memoir, Driving With No Brakes. In it, she honors the friendship between the Lewises and the Hillarys and expresses her gratitude for their long-time support for the Trust.

Certainly, the admiration is mutual. In 2010, Lady June was invited to become an Honorary Director of Grand Circle Foundation. "I am very privileged about that," she says—a characteristically modest sentiment from a forward-looking woman whose life has been devoted to giving back.

Featured in our July 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.