Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
John Hilliard was more dedicated than he cared to admit.
The president of the Milwood Neighborhood Watch Association claimed to tour parts of Kalamazoo’s largest neighborhood three to four times a week – looking for trash, criminal activities, overgrown lawns, vandalism, city ordinance violations, and other potential problems.
But area residents say it was not uncommon to see his compact car on patrol almost every day, on almost every street.
“Quite frequently I’d see him driving past and he’d stop and say, ‘Hi,’” says Milwood resident Chris Praedel. “Every morning when he woke up he’d be in his Subaru and he would drive up and down every single street in the entire Milwood Neighborhood, from the airport over to Miller Road, and he would look for things that were out of order or that needed assistance or report potholes. He took so much pride in his work and he did that every single morning.”
His predecessor Ken Horton patrolled the neighborhood from 1994, the year he started Milwood’s primary community organization, until 2019 when he left the volunteer leadership role. A model for Hilliard’s effort, Horton would comb through area crime statistics every week to try to identify issues that could be addressed, let residents know where a problem might be, and work with police to try to make the neighborhood safer.
“He put it together,” Hilliard said of Horton in 2020. "He did it great for 25 years. Decided to retire. And nobody wanted to do it. So I didn’t want to see it fall by the wayside … So I kind of got the president’s job by default.”
Now Milwood, located at the southeast corner of the City of Kalamazoo, will have to see who steps up next to lead the organization.
Hilliard, a native of Washington, D.C., grew up in Kalamazoo and worked in health care services and for nonprofit organizations throughout the Midwest and central United States before retiring in 2018. He died on Nov. 12 after a short illness. He was 80. Horton, a retired Kalamazoo native who worked as a police officer in Plainwell and Parchment for many years and then as a manager for the U.S. Postal Service, died at home on Nov. 7. He was 82.
“They were both very dear friends of mine,” says Tammy Taylor, executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association. “He (Hilliard) was a huge advocate for his neighborhood. And both John and Ken were very big advocates for Edison when we needed help on issues.”
For his efforts over many years, Horton was presented a Meritorious Citizenship Award in 2009 from the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. In 2019, he received the KDPS Citizens Award.
But for now, “We’re on hold until January,” says Janice Glasser, who runs social media platforms for the association. The association is scrambling to try to schedule a meeting “to see how to move forward because no one at this point has stepped up and said, ‘I want to lead the organization.’ However, there are several people who want to see it keep going.”
During his short time as an organization leader, Hilliard was known for elevating the level of neighborhood programs and activities – from annual events like its annual National Night Out event to its pre-COVID-19 monthly meetings, which were attracting larger numbers of residents to hear speakers such as public works officials, political candidates and the chief of police.
“They were both such great individuals,” says Milwood resident Don Solesbee. “I mean Ken started the Milwood Neighborhood Watch. That’s been his baby for the longest time. And between his service in the military and the police force, being able to start that …”
Horton was a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. Hilliard was a U.S. Army veteran. Both were big on reducing crime in the neighborhood, which is bordered on the north by Miller Road, and on the east, south, and west by Sprinkle Road, Romence Road, and portions of Burdick Street, respectively.
“I know a lot of what went on with the Milwood Neighborhood Watch had a lot to do with his tie-ins and his connections within the Kalamazoo Public Safety group,” Solesbee says of Horton. “Anytime we had issues, if we weren’t getting anywhere, Ken would always make a call to KDPS and things would get squared away.”
Praedel and his wife relocated to Milwood about seven years ago. He met and befriended Hilliard before being elected to the Kalamazoo City Commission in November of 2019.
“John loved the Milwood Neighborhood,” Praedel says. “He took so much pride in leading and advocating for the neighborhood. And I would bet that probably some of his last thoughts before he passed were, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s going to happen to the neighborhood?’ Because he cared so much about it.”
Asked if their passing and the pending retirements of three other longtime neighborhood leaders is a cause for concern about the loss of steady leadership and historical knowledge in the city’s core communities, Praedel says yes, but no.
While each person is irreplaceable in his or her own way, and while losing any seasoned leader leaves a hole in the community fabric, he says through their actions, “They have done so much and impacted so many people that it’s hard to imagine that there’s not somebody whose ready to step in. And they’re (those roles are) important enough that that has to happen.”
Tammy Taylor, who has served as executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association for the past 21 years, is set to retire from that post at the end of this year. Working with an executive search firm, the association’s Board of Trustees is working to recruit a replacement, which may be announced by early January.
Mattie Jordan-Woods, who has been executive director of the Northside Association for Community Development for the past 33 years, has announced plans to retire at the end of 2022.
And Patricia Taylor, who has been executive director of the Kalamazoo East Side Neighborhood Association for 16 years has announced plans to retire in the summer of 2023.
There is a reason for concern, says Chuck Vliek, a member of the Edison Neighborhood Board of Trustees. “Tammy, Mattie, and Pat are extremely passionate about their neighborhoods,” he says. But he has confidence that more strong leadership will be chosen.
“Sometimes you need a breath of fresh air,” says Vliek, who retired in August from 25 years as vice president of programming for Local Initiative Support Corp., and executive director of Michigan LISC, a community development support organization. “And that can be a good thing.”
In Edison, Vliek says he is confident the search team will attract an individual who will bring new ideas, new energy, and new vision to the neighborhood association. He says it will be increasingly difficult to find another Jordan-Woods and others who have given all or most of their adult working careers to serving one community.
Leaders retire but they don’t necessarily leave town, says Jordan-Woods, who has had a number of associates and promising underlings at NACD. But none is currently positioned to assume her role.
Directors are charged with promoting an organization’s mission by planning long-term strategies while overseeing day-to-activities. She or he is responsible for building relationships with area churches, businesses, local officials, city hall, police, potential funding sources, other organizations, and community residents. At the same time they have to try to communicate their efforts to the public and raise funds for needed programming -- often writing grants to help fund their work and other in-house positions. Among Kalamazoo’s 22 neighborhoods, Milwood is the largest. Its Neighborhood Watch Association operates as a nonprofit organization with a volunteer president.
Praedel says he knows Hilliard wanted to see that change.
“He wanted to see at least a part-time or full-time executive director-type figure to run the Milwood Neighborhood Association,” Praedel says. “Part of that is he recognized that Milwood is the largest neighborhood in the city and I think that had always been a dream of his to have somebody who was paid to do what he did and more. He did it all as a volunteer.”
Hilliard was dedicated to the Milwood Neighborhood, Glasser says.
“He was very passionate about making sure it was a safe place to live, an active place, where people could shop, work, live and enjoy – or play as it says in our motto,” Glasser says. “That’s what he was about in his older years. And he was always a person wanting to help.”
Patricia Taylor says she worries a bit about the loss of local knowledge as she and others retire. “But all of us are pretty much going to stay connected to the community in general,” she says. “And then people can come to us and ask for advice.”
With a laugh, she says, “As long as we keep the mindset that we are working together on the same thing, we don’t have to be involved in the daily headaches that we tend to get.”
Focused on the retirement of Tammy Taylor of Edison, she says she’s confident the neighborhood's Board of Trustees will be diligent in choosing a replacement. She says, “It’s all about what do they want to be over the next few years that would shape the type of person that they’re going to pick.”
Before she leaves the Eastside Neighborhood, Taylor says she is working to see the redevelopment of an unused former gas station property at 1802 E. Main St. into a space to give new businesses a start. It may house up to three small start-ups and possibly a small café.
“Theoretically, we’ll be able to lease it (to entrepreneurs) and do some trainings with partnerships from organizations that train,” Taylor says.
Her association is in the process of buying the property. She hopes to see the project completed by the summer of 2023.
Jordan-Woods plans to retire at the end of 2022 after she gets the development of more new housing on track. Her organization has been working to lay the groundwork for the construction of 20 homes in the Northside Neighborhood.
“I’ll be good after that,” Jordan-Woods says.
She and her counterparts have become good friends over the years and they share information with Vine, Oakwood, and other neighborhoods, as needed. But she says, “Eastside, Northside, Edison, we have similar issues – lack of housing, access to housing, those types of things.”
And among them, there has been a lot of shared information and shared contacts.
Until recently, for instance, each had a building contractor she could ask to help an indigent person without being paid up-front. But those resources have aged, retired or in a couple of cases passed on. And those are longtime relationships that have to be found and cultivated over time.
She says she also thinks there may be a changing of the guard on the open-door style of running an organization, in which no appointment is needed and where a resident’s crisis becomes the director’s crisis. She says newer administrators may be more concerned about the number of hours they spend at work and strive to put more structure in their workdays.
With the departure of Tammy Taylor, she and Pat Taylor say they will miss having another ear to bend or shoulder to cry on. “I’m going to miss being able to call and say, ‘This organization’s talking about doing dah, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah,’” Jordan-Woods says. “What do you think about that?’”
Praedel says the three have spent their careers building up people “and making their neighborhoods stronger. And I think that only sets them up (their organizations) to have a pool of people who are interested or who have the passion to step forward.”
“It’s definitely going to be a big growing pain to lose these people and have to find the next Mattie Jordan-Woods and the next Tammy Taylor and the next Pat Taylor and the next John Hilliard,” he says. “But there’s going to be a new face that someday we’ll be looking back and reminiscing the same way we’re thinking about reminiscing about these people. And we’re going to be able to do that because of the work that the people who are retiring and departing have done. I have a lot of confidence in that.”