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Veteran who walked his age in laps at Oak Bay retirement home dies at 105

John Hillman raised nearly half a million dollars for Save the Children Fund with his courtyard walks at Carlton House

John Hillman, the veteran who raised nearly half a million dollars for a children’s charity by doing laps with his walker around his retirement home courtyard, has died at 105.

Each year, starting four years ago, Hillman would walk his age in laps at Carlton House in Oak Bay while the donations poured in, accumulating $468,869 from 2020 to 2023 for Save the Children Fund.

Veterans Memorial Lodge, a Broadmead Care Home where the Second World War veteran had been living since February, called Hillman “a cherished member of our community [and] a remarkable individual whose life and charity work touched many lives.”

Lynn McDiarmid, Hillman’s only child, said Tuesday her father “embraced everything he did. He was a good person who liked to take leadership roles, he communicated well and he was a good dad.”

McDiarmid said although her father was physically failing over the past few months, his mind and memories were clear. “It’s the sharpness of mind he had and his ability to communicate at 105 … and that’s fortunate,” she said. “We could still talk about anything and he had his opinions.”

Janet Power, executive director of Veterans Memorial Lodge, said Hillman continued to live life to the fullest until his death on Monday. “He was a person who really believed he had to keep moving,” she said. “He was happy to have his Carlton House friends visit. He would attend veterans association meetings every two weeks, and he would still take his walks, whether with his walker or a wheelchair.

“He told staff that he had a full and happy life. He was a quiet and gentle man and he will be missed.”

Hillman began his annual fundraisers at the age of 101 after hearing about a fellow Burma veteran in England, Tom Moore, who was just shy of his hundredth birthday and raising money for COVID-19 programs with a walkathon.

“I thought to myself: ‘What he’s doing I can do’,” said Hillman, who chose Save the Children as his charity after he saw a video on the organization. “I thought that I’d had my time and now I’ll do something for those kids.”

Hillman and his wife, Irene, had made Canada their permanent home in 1999 after his post-military career as an electrical engineer.

McDiarmid said her father was grateful to Carlton House for helping to organize the fundraisers, which gave him a spark late in his life.

His annual walks generated wide support and plenty of media recognition, and his dedication was clear as he pushed through challenges — such as Irene’s death at age 100 during his 2021 effort.

Hillman said at the time that he had committed to complete his walk on behalf of children “and I wasn’t going to let them down.”

On its fundraising pages ­dedicated to Hillman’s efforts, Save the Children said Hillman raised $468,869 through more than 1,000 individual donations.

Danny Glenwright, president and chief executive of Save the Children, said Hillman “embodied the very essence of our organization’s values.”

The hardships of children and families around the world were top of mind when the veteran sought a group to support, the charity said. “Having experienced war himself at only 17, he uniquely understood the impact that adversity has on these young lives.”

Hillman wasn’t bothered by weather conditions during his laps on his 101st, 102nd, 103rd and 104th birthdays, circling the courtyard in sunshine, pouring rain and even a gruelling heat dome. He was always gracious and charming in his efforts and during interviews.

And the Greater Victoria ­community rallied behind Hillman, offering donations and encouragement. His story gained widespread attention, featuring in local and national news.

Glenwright said although Hillman did not go ahead with his fundraising walk this year, it was his wish that Save the Children keep his online fundraising page open, so people could continue to contribute.

Hillman was born in Wales, one of five siblings. He was a sportsman throughout his life, playing rugby and cricket and representing Wales as an international fencer, said McDiarmid.

He joined the Royal Air Force before the Second World War broke out “because it was the height of the Depression in Wales and there were no jobs for youngsters.”

He was 17 when he joined in 1937, receiving permission from his father to sign up before the standard age of 18, and went on to become a wireless operator, which took him to France, South Africa, Italy and Burma.

Hillman’s son-in-law, Ralph McDiarmid, is writing a full account of Hillman’s time in the war with the title Two Angels on My Shoulders — a nod to two instances where fate intervened to keep Hillman alive.

One was when he was not chosen to be part of a mission by his squadron while in France to bomb some bridges, Ralph McDiarmid said. “The squadron was more or less annihilated,” he said.

The other was in the aftermath, when he was part of a group heading to the coast to meet up with a troop ship. The soldiers arrived to find the Germans had attacked the port where the ship was docked a day earlier and sunk it, resulting in thousands of deaths.

“By not getting on that troop ship the day before, he was spared again,” Ralph McDiarmid said.

Hillman is survived by his daughter, Lynn, two granddaughters who live in Victoria and Ontario, and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangement have not yet been made, the family said.

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