Maury Islander Hilary Emmer walks the talk as longtime civic activist

Hilary Emmer learned the meaning of social activism from her mother. - Natalie Johnson/staff photo
Hilary Emmer learned the meaning of social activism from her mother.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/staff photo

Visit the home of Islander Hilary Emmer and you would never guess you’d entered the residence of a woman who has been fired from almost every job she has ever held.

Emmer’s modest but artful Maury Island home sits on 10 wooded acres, nestled between a Douglas fir farm and a wildlife preserve owned by the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust. A small pond lined with wildflowers sits below a garden that is fenced in to protect it from the deer that often saunter through. Seashells that tell of countless walks on the beach welcome you at the door, and inside local artwork decorates the walls below a vaulted cedar ceiling.

Emmer herself, warm, welcoming and forever bearing an infectious smile, certainly seems like someone employers would love to have on their team. Spend a few minutes chatting with Emmer on her sunny back porch, however, and you quickly see why she’s had trouble working for others: Emmer, by her own admission, plays by her own rules.

These days, though, this tenacious woman whose unruly silver-gray hair seems to match her spirited personality is better known for inciting good than losing jobs. Emmer, who moved to the Island about a decade ago and is now gainfully self-employed, has quickly become one of Vashon’s most outspoken civic activists and selfless volunteers.

Jean Bosch, who got to know Emmer while serving with her on the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council and now considers her a friend, describes Emmer as a passionate, committed and heartfelt council member.

Bosch is especially impressed with Emmer’s close attention to the needs of the community and the many civic improvements she has made happen during her two years on the council.

Emmer, for instance, was instrumental in getting bike racks installed in town, spearheaded a massive re-cycling event at McFeeds and continues to look out for the disabled on Vashon by getting paved trails and benches installed in recreational areas.

“These little things make the world of difference to somebody,” Emmer said.

School board member Bob Hennessey knows Emmer best as a strong critic of school board spending and a staunch debater.

“Hilary always tries to be constructive and does her homework when making criticisms,” he said.

Hennessey, who went head to head with Emmer over a controversial school bond measure last year, said she has the unusual ability to publicly oppose someone while remaining on friendly terms.

“After the debate we said we’d love to have a beer and in fact we did. … I enjoy the give and take of a good mental joust, and she does as well, and it never results in animosity or bad feelings from my perspective,” he said.

Emmer, 59, a former math teacher and trained tax preparer, supports herself and her partner Maeve Lambert by doing taxes three months a year. But even here, she finds a way to give to those who have little. One day a week, she shows up at the Vashon Library, where she prepares taxes for free for anyone who has an income of $25,000 or less.

Her advocacy doesn’t end there. Emmer has dived into a number of contentious Island issues over the years, helping tenants at Eernisse Apartments who were worried about mold, for instance, or working with Islanders who couldn’t understand why their property taxes had escalated.

“My phone does ring a lot,” she said. “When people have problems they call me. They know I will listen to them. I’m really good at fighting the system.”

Though Emmer’s outspoken activism and compassion for others help her fit right in on Vashon, she originates from a place some would consider the antithesis of Vashon: Brooklyn, New York.

“I loved growing up in New York,” Emmer said, adding that her parents made sure she and her brother were immersed in the rich culture New York had to offer, spending much of their time at the theater, ballets or museums.

Emmer credits her mother for instilling in her a fierce sense of fairness. Indeed, her mother’s activism — much like hers today — centered around housing: When Emmer was a child, her mother would work with African Americans who had been told an apartment was rented, checking afterwards only to find out it was in fact still available.

“She made it clear that all people are equal,” she said. “She taught me if you see an injustice you should take it upon yourself to correct it and not wait for someone else to do it.”

After graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo — where she protested the Vietnam War and marched for women’s rights — Emmer went on to teach remedial math in Queens.

When she realized traditional teaching methods were getting her nowhere with the at-risk youth in her classroom, Emmer got creative, using games such as handball and chess to teach mathematical concepts and even informing students about safe drug use.

Though Emmer felt her unconventional methods got through to the students, her district couldn’t have students doing math problems using ounces of marijuana as examples, and Emmer was terminated after only one semester.

After several years of wandering around the country and being let go from job after job, Emmer finally found something that made her settle down: a family.

Emmer’s partner, Lambert, had two daughters when she and Emmer met at the abortion clinic they both worked at, and Emmer quickly became a second mother to them.

“When you get a responsibility you live up to your responsibility. … Being in a family with kids, you’re not number one,” she said. “Their needs and wishes come before yours. That changed me.”

The new family soon moved to Seattle, a place that Emmer and Lambert felt would be safer for their mixed-race children to grow up.

They begin to explore Vashon in 1988, when Lambert suggested they retire on the Island. “I insisted that we at least visit a place before we moved there,” Emmer recalled. A decade later, once their daughters were grown, Lambert got her wish; the two women moved to the Maury home they designed and helped build in 1999.

Today, Emmer and Lambert are often seen around town, seemingly inseparable. But that, too, is a testament to Emmer’s fierce belief in what’s right and wrong and her deep commitment to the welfare of others. Six years ago, Lambert was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Today, Emmer acts as Lambert’s caretaker and near-constant companion, taking her with her as she attends meetings, prepares taxes and advocates for others.

“It’s given me some restrictions,” Emmer acknowledged, “but I try not to let it change very much. … I don’t want her to be in a home.”

“You look at life differently when you have challenges,” she added. “You meet them and do what you have to do. You look at the good parts and don’t dwell on the parts you can’t change.”

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