Hartford High Alum Returns From Apache Reservation

  • Consoni Hill, of Whiteriver, Ariz., and George Miller, of Hartford, Vt., at a Hartford High alumni gathering in June 2016. They attended high school together in the 1970s. (David Briggs photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 13, 2016

For all but a couple of his 61 years, Consoni Hill has lived in the watershed of the White River, in the middle of the Apache reservation in eastern Arizona.

Since the mid-1970s, he’s been pining for another White River: the one in Vermont that he passed or crossed every day while attending Hartford High School under a program for minority students called A Better Chance.

And during a recent visit for Hartford’s alumni weekend, he remembered why, even after decades of serving the White Mountain Apache Tribe in a variety of capacities, he dreams of coming back — for keeps.

“We have rolling hills out there, but not covered in green like here,” Hill said in an interview at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction, before returning to Arizona with the White Mountains Apache dancers he brought to the celebration. “I claim this to be my first home. Arizona is my second home. … I wish I could have a piece of land or something out here, spend the rest of my life here.”

Plenty of classmates, particularly Wendy Henderson of Brownsville, would welcome him back, the way they did during alumni weekend.

“His locker was next to mine,” Henderson, who organized the effort to bring Hill and the dancers East, recalled recently. “He was a practical joker. He once took the pins out of the hinges on my locker and waited around the corner to see it fall off in my hands. I retaliated by putting a lobster shell on the top shelf of his locker so it would fall out when he opened the door. After that, my locker was safe.”

And a friendship — one of many Hill formed during two years at Hartford High — was born, which they rekindled earlier this year.

“He found me on Facebook, and he let me know how disappointed he was that he could not afford to come to our 40th reunion,” Henderson said. “I told him that he should start a GoFundMe page and see what happens.”

After the online effort to bring Hill and the Apache dancers East netted less than half of its goal of $4,000, Henderson enlisted a variety of alumni to help with expenses and arrangements, among them Hotel Coolidge owner David Briggs.

A 1964 Hartford graduate, Briggs, whose brother graduated with Hill and whose parents hosted A Better Chance students during that era, offered a family price on hotel rooms, and provided the visitors use of a kitchen. He also provided the visitors use of a kitchen, in which he and Henderson and 1975 alumnus Gene Ashley cooked their meals when they weren’t driving them around.

“Without his help,” Henderson said of Briggs, “I never could have pulled it off.”

Briggs also found the Apaches a place high in the hills of Hartford’s Jericho district to build a sweat lodge and hold a religious ceremony.

“While we were there … a classic old, beat-up tractor passed by pulling a load of hay bales,” Briggs recalled during a recent exchange of emails. “The driver jumped off and turned out to be George Miller, who was at HHS with Consoni in the ’70s. They gave each other a big hug.”

By the end of that weekend, Hill had lost count of all the people he’d hugged — people with whom he played football and basketbal, people he’d cheered at field hockey and soccer games, people who had simply made him feel welcome.

“A lot of them have changed, as we all have,” Hill said on the last day of his visit. “But with some of them I could tell who they were: the contours of their nose or the smiles on their face are still the same.

“There’s more buildings around now than what I remember, but the generosity is the same, the warm hospitality I was used to back then.”

So members of the dance team noticed before and after their performances in the alumni-day parade and at the Briggs Opera House.

“Consoni’s been looking forward to this for a while,” dancer Chico Declay said. “He wanted to come back to his high school memory. I can see why. It’s pretty beautiful. The tall trees are great. And everybody’s pretty nice.”

After a few more hugs with old friends and new, Consoni Hill prepared to return to the reservation where he has served the White Mountain tribe in roles ranging from 10 years as president of the Hon-Dah community of Apaches in McNary, Ariz., to his current membership on the board of the Apache Behavioral Health Service.

“I would love to spend the rest of my life here, if I could find a good place,” Hill said. “I really hate to leave.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.