GTPulse: Salvation Army Volunteer Brings the Gift of Music to Downtown Traverse City

Christmas season is here, and along with it holiday cheer! Are you rolling your eyes? Stay with me. This will be my first Christmas in Traverse City and I’m already getting holiday fever. Trees lining the downtown streets are illuminated with glowing string lights, and yesterday I witnessed the Traverse City Christmas tree being put up on Cass. While admiring the tree’s sweeping stature, I heard the familiar ringing of a bell.

Hillar Bergman is a Traverse City resident who is giving back to the community by bell ringing for the Salvation Army, except he doesn’t ring a bell the whole time. Hillar is an accomplished violinist and plays his violin for passerby in order to spread holiday cheer, and help raise money for the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign.

Hillar was born in England, where his parents met.

“My parents were war refugees. My mother was born in Estonia, which is just south of Helsinki, Finland. My dad was from Latvia, which is right below Estonia. During World War II they both fled the country. Latvia and Estonia are two distinct languages that are very different but they both spoke German and that’s how they communicated with each other.”

Hillar’s family moved to the United States when he was six years old. They moved to Midland, Michigan where his father took a job at Dow Chemical. Hillar stayed in that area through college and attended Delta College where he studied fine arts.

“I was going to go into teaching and then I got very heavily involved in ceramics. I always had several things going on at once. That, and the music.”

Hillar took interest in playing violin when he was a young man in his 20s.

“It was in the mid-seventies and I played guitar. Back then there was a group of people that got together it was called the Original Michigan Fiddlers Association. They’d get together and have these jamborees and parties. We did a lot of old time tunes and I played back up on the guitar. I was kind of interested in the fiddle and one day someone handed me their fiddle and said, ‘why don’t you give it a try?’”

Hillar mimicked how to hold and play chords on the violin by doing what he had seen the other fiddle players do. 

“I found a fiddle at a yard sale not long after that and that was really a stroke of luck. I was having a lot of fun playing at these jamborees and my goal was to get good enough on the fiddle to where I could play a couple songs and get up on stage, like I was already doing with the guitar.”

He learned his two songs, and has spent the rest of his life improving his fiddle playing. 

As a child, Hillar and his family would make trips to Traverse City. 

“I remember being a kid and going to the fair when it was out on the fairgrounds. Of course the zoo was here and everything. I always thought I’d like to live in Traverse City and so I ended up here. I bought a place here 20 years ago and been here ever since.”

At the time Hillar was self employed and painted parking lot stripes. In the summer, business was great but the winter was a dead season for him and he needed a way to make money year-round. He was interested in substitute teaching but the person interviewing him for the job was not impressed by his art background.

“For some reason I didn’t hit it off with the interviewer. It just didn’t fit together, I guess I didn’t look like what they had in mind.”

The substitute teaching rejection led Hillar to taking a job with BATA. When websites were gaining popularity in the 90s, many businesses were interested in having a website but had no concept of how to make one. Hillar utilized his art degree to get a job at BATA and built them a website. 

“I was hired as a driver and I said, ‘you know, you guys really ought to have a website.’ So I started the first website for BATA. I ended up working there for 20 years.”

Hillar may have spent 20 years at BATA, but he spent the last eight doing what he wanted to do to begin with; substitute teach. 

“I saw an ad that the school system was looking for substitute teachers again. I applied online and I never interviewed a real person when I applied the second time, it was all online and they just wanted copies of my references and college transcripts. It wasn’t like last time! Boy, they hired me right on the spot and it was terrific.”

He still substitutes for TCAPS, but when he’s not doing that he’s gracing downtown Traverse City with the beautiful sound of his violin during the holiday season. He was playing at the Salvation Army when he saw that they needed a bell ringer.

“They said, ‘are you gonna play your violin?’ and I said ‘oh sure’ so that worked out pretty well.”

Categories: GTPulse