Big Sky Spotlight: Meet Becky Hillier
For the past two years, Becky Hillier has served as a volunteer board member for the Big Sky Honor Flight, the free trip to Washington, D.C., that honors and thanks the veterans for their selfless sacrifices. Hillier has so far made the special trip with hundreds of Montana WWII veterans.
Becky Hillier offers a very firm handshake. It telegraphs her focus and intensity – qualities she’s called upon since she competed in the Miss America pageant at age 17.
On a lark, Becky McRae joined friends trying out for the Miles City pageant. She won and went on to become Miss Montana 1988.
“I loved to sing and perform” as a member of high school choirs and plays, Hillier said. “I won Miss Congeniality, too, so that helped.”
She was the youngest contestant in the Miss America that year.
In 1990, she married Mitch Hillier, a Billings police officer. She and Mitch were living in Rapid City, S.D., and she enrolled at Black Hills State University in nearby Spearfish where a professor told her she was wasting time in school.
“He told me ‘you have talent, ambition and need someone to give you a break,’ ” Hillier said.
The break came in 1996 at the Bucking Horse Sale in Miles City, where she hustled a job from C.W. Wilcox at local KYUS radio station. Wilcox had broadcast her basketball games at Custer County High. At 6 feet tall, Hillier played post.
Two days later, Wilcox hired her. A one-woman news department, her days ran from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“I was exhausted. I wanted to be a real journalist. I had to prove myself. I started at the absolute bottom,” Hillier said.
She produced a 5-minute news blip for noon and evening broadcast. After three months in Miles City, a new NBC TV affiliate in Rapid City – Mitch had remained there – hired her, where she did the morning local insert to the Today Show. In a year, she was doing full news.
Moving to Madison, Wis., in 2002, Hillier was the main anchor and health reporter at WMTV NBC 15 for five years. The family returned to Billings in 2007. Hillier has a son, 21, who is a student at Montana State University-Billings and a daughter, 15, who is at West High School.
“It was burnout and I was looking for something outside journalism,” Hillier said.
In 2008, she joined the staff at Rocky Mountain Hospice. In 2010, she returned to broadcasting at KTVQ for a year. Since 2011, she has been the regional public relations/media relations director at Rocky Mountain Hospice, where she educates people as to the role of hospice care.
“There are so many misconceptions. Knowledge reduces fear. We are there for the terminally ill whether it be for 30 minutes or four to five years. Not just the final days or hours,” Hillier said. “It is a philosophy of care in the home.”
Besides helping raise money, Hillier is a cheerleader for the program.
“I am the captain of the Blue Bus when the flight gets to Washington, D.C. The 37-hour weekend is jammed with events so that the veterans get to see as many of the city’s memorials as possible,” she said. “Most important is the WWII Memorial.”
There have been seven trips from Montana that have taken 602 veterans. All from WWII, except one terminally ill Vietnam veteran.
“We have three buses and one van. I act as a tour guide and take roll call every time we move on. Have not lost anyone yet,” Hillier said. “At the banquet, I MC and sing the national anthem. The Vietnam veteran, who has since died, visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall. He was moved by the children, especially a Boy Scout in uniform who approached him.”
What does it mean to work with the veterans?
It has been a real blessing to get to know them, to make them feel like they are the center of the universe. [I am glad to have] done this really nice thing. Growing up in Miles City there were people who were in WWII who came to our basketball games. This has renewed my appreciation for them. I have an affinity for the military. At the end of my reign (as Miss Montana) I went on a USO-type show in 1989 to military bases in South Korea, Japan, Hawaii, Okinawa, Iwo Jima.
Why donate your time this way?
My boss, (Robert Meyer, regional executive director of Rocky Mountain Hospice) an Air Force officer in the first Gulf War, asked me to check it out. Was it legitimate? He offered my services. He really wanted to help get it off the ground. In January 2012, I joined the board to focus on media relations. To explain to veterans what Big Sky Honor Flight is – for them.
Where in Montana do you go to relax?
We don’t get away a lot. We like to go to Red Lodge for a weekend. Also, there is a cabin on the Stillwater River where there is no phone or cable TV.
What three words describe Montana?
Beautiful. Majestic. Peaceful.
Jim Gransbery is a retired agricultural/political reporter of The Billings Gazette. He writes from Billings.