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It was a busy weekend for Daren Hillary, as friends and family gathered at his home in McIntosh to wish him a happy birthday.
He was actually born on May 30 – 1922 – but when you’re 100 years old, you celebrate pretty much whenever you feel like it.
Growing up in Oakland, California, he recalled, “I never went to school on my birthday in my life,” he says. “That’s because it was Decoration Day,” which until 1971 was what Memorial Day used to be called.
Looking back on his long life, Hillary laughs about his aimless youth, saying that as a young man he had no idea what he wanted to do, “and to be quite honest, I didn’t give it much thought,” he says.
Still he went on to have a 24-year career in the U.S. Navy, serving during three wars, then ran a successful construction company followed by a brief flirtation with New Mexico politics.
As a teenager, he played football and ran track in high school, but his preoccupation with athletics was at the expense of academics, so getting into a good university was a long shot, he says. He attended a junior college in Marin County, but with the advent of World War II, and influenced by the naval air maneuvers over San Francisco Bay, he decided he, too, would be a naval aviator.
At the recruitment office he kept being rejected because of a high blood pressure reading. That didn’t stop him and he returned a half dozen times over six weeks trying to pass the screening that was holding him back.
“Once I felt that cuff go around my arm and saw the guys in the white medical coats with a stethoscope around their necks, my blood pressure would just go up,” he says. “But one Friday night I partied and drank some, and then went back for the blood test on Saturday morning, still hung over. I fell asleep on the gurney as they were starting to pump up the cuff. I didn’t have enough time to get excited and finally passed my blood pressure test.”
Hillary eventually got his wings in a ceremony in Pensacola, Florida, and was given the rank of ensign, but after he got his wings, he says, “I got what you call screwed, which is an option the Navy Department had available to them. They took me out of being an aviator and made me a landing signal officer, that’s the guy who stands at the back of the aircraft carrier and makes gestures to the guys in the airplanes who are actually flying. It’s an important position, of course, but I wanted to fly and go to war, and you can’t do that standing on the rear end of an aircraft carrier.”
He did that for the balance of World War II, assigned to the USS Breton, an escort carrier that sailed between San Diego and Guam, transporting aircraft that were damaged but could still be repaired.
He left the Navy at the end of the war. By this time he was married and had started a family. “So I go back to Oakland, thinking I’m going to set the world on fire, only to find the job market is flooded with other young people who had gotten out of the military,” Hillary says. He took a job in a furniture factory at 80 cents an hour, but realized it would be tough to make a living. After consulting with his wife, he exercised his 90-day option to return to the Navy with his former rank and salary.
It was only then that he finally got to fly aircraft, the F2H Banshee jet fighter, but still, he didn’t see combat. He flew off the USS Tarawa in the Mediterranean, during the years of the Korean War, and then off the USS Shangri-La, operating throughout the Pacific during the Vietnam War era, and where Jim Lovell was one of his shipmates and close friends. Lovell would later become an astronaut in NASA’s Gemini program and was aboard the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 mission.
Hillary became familiar with New Mexico from 1959-61, when he was reassigned to a Navy special weapons facility at Kirtland Air Force Base, evaluating the compatibility of weapons with aircraft delivery systems.
He left the Navy in 1964, but the Navy was not yet done with him. He was reactivated in 1967-68, and returned to New Mexico, where he worked in weapons research at Kirtland. He finally retired from the Navy in 1968, departing with the rank of lieutenant commander and resolved to permanently relocate to Albuquerque.
Hillary took the state exam to become a general contractor and then started his own company, but he admits, “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was a businessman, but I found this guy who knew how to frame and build houses.” Together they hired crews of workers and constructed many of the homes on the West Side.
While living in the Southeast Heights, Hillary, a conservative Republican, became interested in politics. He ran and won the seat as state representative for District 19. For his second term in 1980, he was challenged by Democrat Robert Hawk. The election resulted in a tie, which was decided by a coin toss that Hillary lost. He later ran for state land commissioner, and lost, and after moving to McIntosh and running again for state representative, lost to Gary King.
The Hillary home is filled with memorabilia and photos, including a large portrait of Hillary as a young Naval officer with his new wife and childhood sweetheart, the former Georgia Annette Phillips. They married during World War II. He described her as the quintessential Rosie the Riveter, working in a San Diego facility that helped assemble B-24 bombers. They had been married for 67 years when she died in 2011, having raised five children, who in turn had children of their own. There are now 14 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.
Hillary still drives into Albuquerque once a week to meet with buddies at the Kirtland golf course coffee shop, “and I’ve never had an accident or gotten a ticket,” he says proudly. And he is pretty matter of fact when asked his secret to a long life.
“Oh, I don’t think I’ve done anything unusual,” he says, noting that he quit smoking cigarettes years ago when he played on a softball team and realized he didn’t have the wind. However, he has not abandoned all his vices.
“In the Navy we always had happy hour on Fridays and I still have a highball every evening or a glass of wine. It doesn’t seem to have hurt me.”