Former Camas police chief dies

Funeral planned for Bill Hillgaertner, 79, who led department through ‘80s

timestamp icon
category icon News

By Patrick Webb
For The Post-Record

A funeral for former Camas Police Chief Bill Hillgaertner will take place Friday, Nov. 16, in Vancouver.

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Hillgaertner served as Camas’ chief of police through the 1980s. He died Oct. 17, at the age of 79,
Hillaertner hired current Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey and presented him with his police certificate when he graduated from the State Police Academy.

“He was always supportive of the staff and believed in training and education as a means to improve professionalism in law enforcement,” Lackey said of his former chief.

Already weakened by mesothelioma, Hillgaertner became ill toward the end of an international cruise, and died after several days in a Japanese hospital on Oct. 17.

Tributes will be paid during Hillgaertner’s funeral, which will take place at 4 p.m., Friday, Nov. 16, at Evergreen Memorial Gardens, 1101 N.E. 112th Ave., Vancouver.

Gwen Wyttenbach met Hillgaertner in Annapolis, Maryland, in the 1960s, during the three years she dated his academy roommate. They lost touch when Wyttenbach’s husband joined the U.S. Navy, but reconnected through Facebook and met up in person on the East Coast in 2017.

“I got to know Bill on weekends during the three years that I dated my husband at the Naval Academy,” Wyttenbach said. “Bill was a patriot and a public servant to be admired by all, and an all-around good guy. He will be missed by all, especially me.”

Hillgaertner, of La Center, is survived by two children, Leon Hillgaertner and Nona Hillgaertner Mallicoat, both of La Center, one grandson, Hunter, a junior at La Center High School, two brothers and one sister.

After his military service with the Marine Corps, Hillgaertner had a lengthy career in public service that straddled police and fire departments.

He graduated from Hillsboro High School, in Hillsboro, Oregon, at 16, became a volunteer firefighter and joined the Oregon Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve at 17. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1958, attaining the rank of lance corporal before being selected for four years of study at the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated in 1963 as a second lieutenant, then served in the Dominican Republic before training as a translator-interrogator. He saw combat during two tours in Vietnam, including the 1968 Tet Offensive.

His daughter, Nona, also served in the Marine Corps before embarking on a career with the Washington Employment Security Department. Both were active leading the Lewis and Clark Young Marine Program, encouraging young people to embrace the Marine ethic.

Hillgaertner worked as an arson investigator, river patrol officer and a detective for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Portland. He completed his master’s degree in public administration at Lewis and Clark College, also in Portland, and worked as a trial assistant in Benton County, Oregon, before coming to Camas in 1979 to serve as the city’s police chief through the 1980s. He served as Camas’ director of public safety until 1992, after the city’s police and fire departments combined — an experiment that was later reversed.

In 1988, Hillgaertner attended the FBI Academy, running the same obstacle courses he did with the Marine Corps 25 years earlier.
Later, he worked as head of security for Intel and concluded his law enforcement career with the Washington State Patrol truck inspection department in Clark County.

Aside from his police job in Camas, Hillgaertner was an active leader in community affairs. His strategy, often with considerable assistance from his then-wife, Mary Shearer, was to join an ailing organization, help it regroup, then recruit others to keep it running efficiently.

He worked with the Camas-Washougal Community Chest and Camas-Washougal Special Olympics, and was a charter member of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Camas-Washougal.

Hillgaertner’s sense of fun helped create the Camas Marching Kazoo Band, which performed in local parades. He was a 1983 founder of Blue Parrot Theatre Company, serving on its board and appearing in productions. He was usually cast in small roles, except when the troupe performed “Play It Again, Sam” and he portrayed the ghost of Humphrey Bogart.

Hillgaertner and his family also performed with the Champoeg Historical Pageant, dubbed by the state of Oregon as “the official pageant of Oregon statehood.”

He was a charter member of the Columbia River Detachment of the Marine Corps League, serving as its first commandant in 1992.
In retirement, Hillgaertner worked part-time for a natural foods company and was a keen supporter of La Center school sports and the Young Marines program.

“He was a wonderful man, a hero to many, and a man of many stories,” said Holly Lewis of Fairview, Oregon. She met Hillgaertner through the Young Marines and took a job cleaning his house to help pay for her studies at Concordia University in Portland from 2008 to 2012.

She earned an A grade on a history paper about the Tet Offensive — helped by Hillgaertner’s reminiscences of combat in Vietnam during that turning point in the war.

“I am sad to have lost a man that I have considered my adopted grandfather for many many years,” Lewis said.

Tamie Bragg-Hughes, of Vancouver, had similar memories. She was a staff member with the Young Marines and appreciated how Hillgaertner helped her teenage daughter prepare for an opportunity to apply for a prestigious FBI training camp.

“Bill had many stories and definitely lived a full life,” Bragg-Hughes said. “I can’t even begin to explain how great he was. … He was a very big mentor, not only to his fellow Marines but to his friends, family and to so many kids at Lewis and Clark Young Marines.”

In later life, Hillgaertner traveled extensively, alone or with his children, visiting Maryland and Virginia, home to the Naval Academy, Quantico, the National Marine Corps Museum and FBI Academy. He also went on personal trips to places such as Iceland, Scotland and England. A few years ago, after deciding to drive the trans-Canada highway from coast to coast, Hillgaertner began a solo journey that lasted more than four weeks.

His final trip was a 19-day cruise through Alaskan waters to Russia and Japan. Hillgaertner became ill before the ship sailed back to the U.S., and his condition deteriorated over the course of a few days. His daughter, who had accompanied him on the cruise, was at his hospital bedside in Yokohama, Japan, when he died.

“He was in no pain, and it was very peaceful. I was able to stay with him until the end,” she posted online.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the William Hillgaertner Scholarship, Northwest Regiment of the Young Marines, P.O. Box 357, La Center, WA 98629, or in his name to the National Museum of the Marine Corps,

Editor’s Note: Retired journalist Patrick Webb was editor of The Post-Record from 1980 to 1986.