Sandra F. Hillman

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Sandra Fales Hillman died unexpectedly but peacefully in her sleep on Friday, January 20, 2012. She was at “Stoneybrook,” her home in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Born on May 29, 1938, in Miami, Florida, to Barbara (Bunny) Foote Fales and Sam Fales, Sandra was destined for a life of adventure, as well as a prominent role as guardian of all of nature’s bounty — be it land, animals, birds or plant life.

As a young child and adolescent, Sandra attended a school in Venezuela founded by her mother, but for a few winters, she lived in Barbados and attended a British school. There began Sandra’s lifelong love affair with horses and riding, taking long excursions on horseback with her mother along the beaches and in the plantations. Her father, a pilot, would fly over from Caracas to enjoy the weekends with his family. Sandra completed high school at Miss Harris’s Florida School for Girls before attending Smith College in Northampton.

Sandra spent her childhood summers in West Tisbury at “Windy Hill,” the historic family property that belonged to her grandparents, Gladys and Warren C. Foote. During her marriage to Howard B. Hillman, she devoted all of her winter weekends to skiing in Mad River Glen, Vermont, and her summers to “Waterwheel Farm” in Chilmark. The farmhouse provided a core family base for raising their children, Howard and Elise, and the barn was the ideal setting for their scores of horses, hens, lambs, dogs, pet raccoons, skunks, cats, various amphibians, and hives of bees. Last summer, Sandra was ecstatic when a family of barn owls returned after two decades of absence to nest in the barn owl box she had built so many years before. Nightly, she would set out armed with a blanket and flashlight to watch the patient parents teach their fledglings to fly, urging her entire family and closest friends not to miss this experience. It was magical.

In her early married years and while living in a carriage house in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., Sandra cultivated her horticultural talents through an apprenticeship in bonsai training at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Her passion for gardening, plants and the outdoors was instilled in her at an early age — inspired by her grandmother Gladys Underwood Foote, and by close mentors and family members, Dora Butcher Hillman and Polly Butcher Hill (Polly Hill Arboretum).

Another influence was her godfather, David Fairchild of Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Coral Gables, Fla., who advised, “Don’t give this child too many toys and such. Let her enjoy and grow up in the great outdoors and use her God-given mind.” Instead of the typical baby gift, he gave little Sandra glass jars filled with live bugs and butterflies — far more stimulating.

Sandra honed her knowledge and contribution to the fields of gardening and horticulture by devoting hundreds of hours to Green Fingers, a garden club under the aegis of the Garden Club of America. She organized and led many memorable visits to world class gardens, most recently in Quebec on the St. Lawrence River and on a tour of special historic gardens in Charleston, South Carolina. Sandra was honored with multiple awards for horticulture and conservation. In 1997, through Sandra’s efforts, the venerable Polly Hill Arboretum was awarded the most prestigious Garden Club of America Medal of Merit at the annual meeting in Philadelphia. “Aunt Polly” was 90, and Sandra wanted to see her recognized for her lifetime achievements. A family member who attended reminisced that it was a spectacular evening, with Polly sitting next to Edward Wilson — the ant scientist — heads bent in conversation.

Like her mother before her, Sandra was a fluid and elegant equestrienne. Moving to Greenwich, Conn., in 1968, she trained with Teddy Wahl and Ray Molony of Round Hill Stables in the 70s and 80s, and she was awarded numerous trophies for side-saddle, including winning the Cours d’Elegance for six years. She competed and placed in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden a number of times, and in 1980, she and her daughter were the first mother-daughter team to qualify in the side-saddle division at the Garden. She went on to share her knowledge and innate understanding of horses with so many others — her grandchildren, friends, and Pegasus Therapeutic Riding, a riding program for children with disabilities, not only as a volunteer but also as a member of the board of directors.

Sandra was lauded as one of the first in Greenwich to embrace historic house preservation. With the purchase of “Stoneybrook” in 1973, she lovingly labored for hundreds of hours, restoring the property and gardens on the site of the 1750 Jeremiah Mead homestead and sawmill. In 2002, in collaboration with the Greenwich Land Trust and the Greenwich Historical Society, she succeeded in protecting her beautiful gardens and landscape through a perpetual conservation easement. Her dream was completed in 2006, when the Garden Club of America presented her with the Zone Historic Preservation Award. “Stoneybrook” became the first privately owned single property to be so designated in Greenwich. The gardens surrounding her home became a regular listing in the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Directory, a guide to visiting gardens in America. Though she relished her privacy and solitude, Sandra shared this magical world that she had created with her family, friends, and passers-by.

Sandra found true peace on the Island, particularly at the farm on Middle Road. She valued her many deep friendships with Islanders with whom she rode horseback and hiked, and devoted her time to the Agricultural Fair and the West Tisbury Congregational Church. In addition, she was a board member on Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and was a founder of the Friends of Middle Road Association.

Sandra was deeply connected to her ancestry and was anticipating the opportunity to further research the genealogy of her Cleaveland and Athearn forebears. In the last decade, she collaborated with her mother and sister on a three-volume set of memoirs, entitled Venezuelan Ventures. These books brought vividly to life her parents’ adventures and the colorful years of a carefree childhood in Venezuela and the Vineyard. The accounts of these unique experiences are treasured by all and gave Sandra a great sense of completion.

We will remember Sandra not for her many accomplishments but for her true essence, her being. She was a descendant of Pilgrims and she lived her life in a very simple and devoted manner. Family, God and nature. She believed in work before play, and said often that we all need to touch the earth — the soil — daily. She was at one with nature and animals. As a patient observer, nothing was too small or inconsequential for her to miss the wonder of it. She was beautiful, both inside and out. Always the flash of a smile, a compliment, a gesture — a true lady. Sandra epitomized “Do Unto Others” as she was selfless — always reaching out when she thought of someone; giving a small but meaningful gift from nature; doing a kind deed; being a good neighbor; always speaking well of others. She labored with love in her gardens and carefully reaped what she sowed — flowers, seeds, clippings, a jar of Concord grape jelly, honey, eggs, wool — all presented to the occasional visitor. Sandra was a teacher. She shared her values and beliefs by doing, not saying. She was an incredible role model to so many and a friend to so many more. She touched lives but for a moment and made an indelible print. She did not seek accolades, but she was given them.

We will always see her emerging from the sparkling ocean waters of Quansoo; cantering over the crest of the hill in Hazelton; kneeling with garden clippers ever present — weeding, clipping, digging, or quietly reading outside as the light fades into darkness.

In addition to her daughter, Elise Hillman Green, and her son, Howard B. Hillman Jr., she leaves her son-in-law, Gregory H. Green, and her treasured grandchildren, Hartwell, Ridgely, Harrison and Chandler Green. She is also survived by her sister, Barbara (Suki) Fales de Braganca, and her brother-in-law, Miguel, of West Tisbury and Boston, and their children, Miguel Sam, Annabel, and Camilla, and her former husband, Howard B. Hillman, of Evergreen, Colo. Still waiting for her warm lap or gentle touch is her menagerie of adored pets — Australian shepherd Bella, Archie the Shetland pony; the three sheep Baby, Doll and Blackie; 14 hens; and Bambi and Simon, her cats.

Her family requests that to honor Sandra’s remarkable life, gifts in her memory be made to either the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury P.O. Box 3000, PMB 3111, West Tisbury, MA 02575 or the Martha’s Vineyard Horse Council, MVHC, Inc., P.O. Box 833, West Tisbury, MA 02575.

Burial will be private on Martha’s Vineyard.