Remembering Hoddy

Institute founder recalls Horace ‘Hoddy’ Hildreth’s essential Maine qualities

Story by Philip Conkling
Photo by Peter Ralston

When I think of the essential qualities a Maine person ought to have, at the top of the list is an instinctual recognition—a gut sense—of right from wrong. A Maine person is willing to speak their mind before waiting to join a chorus. They must have the confidence to challenge prevailing opinion. They should be a good judge of character. They will be understated but speak from broad experience.

They are humble—and know that their success is dependent on many, many others. They ought to have a sense of adventure—especially for the North. They should like the company of others and not mind bending an elbow with anyone.

They will possess a sly and salty wit. They will read widely. Staunchly loyal to family and friends, they will also be friendly to people from all walks of life. And finally, at their core, they have an unerring sense of decency. If we are fortunate, we may possess a few of these qualities.

Hoddy Hildreth was a complete Maine man who possessed all these qualities.

I first met Hoddy on the Vinalhaven ferry over 30 years ago. We fell into a discussion about the Maine islands, which he loved as much as I. His wife for life, Wooly, was with him. I don’t remember much else about our conversation except that we laughed a lot. As the ferry pulled into Carver’s Harbor, he suggested I come see him in Portland in the fall to tell him about my hopes for the Island Institute.

Diversified Communications was a much smaller company then. Hoddy had created it out of a few businesses his father had started, whom I gathered had not paid too much attention to their success.

With a keen eye to talent, Angus King was one of Hoddy’s first hires.

There was a radio and TV station in Bangor, the National Fisherman in Camden, and Fish Expo in Boston—which much later evolved into the Boston International Seafood Show under Hoddy’s leadership.

After graduating from Bowdoin, where his father had also gone, Hoddy went into politics, also like his father, who had been the governor of Maine, 1945-1949. Hoddy won a seat in the Maine Senate in 1966 and then went to work at one of Portland’s white shoe law firms—not that Hoddy would have been caught dead in white shoes.

Hoddy was asked to represent paper companies as a lobbyist in Augusta, but soon grew distressed by his clients’ reprehensible environmental records. His old law firm “retired” him, so he started his own firm. With a keen eye to talent, Angus King was one of Hoddy’s first hires.

With Hoddy’s leadership, the Maine Legislature passed landmark environmental laws including the establishment of the Land Use Regulation Commission, or LURC, to regulate development in Maine’s 10 million acres of unorganized territories. After oil companies began prospecting for sites to build oil refineries and terminals, Hoddy established a non-profit organization, the Coastal Resource Action Committee and led the successful fight to keep big oil out of Maine.

Recognizing that local planning boards could approve an application for projects like an oil refinery, which would have effects on nearby towns, Hoddy helped write and pass the Site Law of Development Act to provide oversight of development projects greater than 20 acres. These laws remain the bedrock on which Maine’s environmental movement was built.

When the Island Institute was still a wobbly six-year-old start up, Hoddy became chairman of the board of trustees. His guidance over the next 17 years while he led the board was crucial to the success of the Institute. When board discussions grew fractious, Hoddy had a talent for a wry remark or a self-deprecating witticism that could relieve tension.

As CEO of a family business with a board composed of relatives and in-laws, Hoddy was not immune to board room drama. On some level, we bonded over the experience of the slings and arrows launched at the head of a rapidly growing, enterprising organization. Of course, Diversified Communications was a hundred times larger than the Institute, but in both organizations, there were always other ways of doing things and no shortage of suggestions by others as to what those might be.

I could always rely on his being a good listener and an even more trusted advisor.

I remember one vivid example of how similarly Hoddy and I approached issues in our respective spheres. Hoddy had a highly talented executive assistant, who was also a skilled Myers Briggs facilitator. She had organized various Myers Briggs exercises for Diversified’s employees and wanted Hoddy to participate. Hoddy wasn’t so sure he wanted to be involved at the office, but he was curious and so signed up for a Myers Briggs workshop at the Island Institute.

For those unfamiliar with the exercise, the process involves answering detailed questions about how one approaches situations in life in order to give you an idea of your personality “archetype.” In the work place, this tool can be useful for understanding why it is so difficult to communicate with some people and so easy to communicate with others.

It turns out that Hoddy and I were both the same archetype—somewhat introverted, intuitive, and more oriented to thinking than feelings, more motivated by a “gut sense” than other ways of judging right and wrong. It was an “Ah-ha” moment for me, because I knew that Hoddy and I connected in a more fundamental, unchanging way and that I could always rely on his being a good listener and an even more trusted advisor.

Hoddy’s approach to leadership, which I hope I shared, was in his words, “Hire people smarter than you and then get out of their way.”

Hoddy’s instincts were rarely wrong. Once, when raising money for the Institute, a valued trustee convinced us that a big gala and auction was a tried and true method of filling the coffers. Everyone went to work to get artists and jewelers and people with fancy vacation homes or boats to donate to the auction, which would be held in conjunction with a fancy dinner with lots of wine under chandeliers encouraging people to bid. Although the event raised a handsome amount of money after expenses, it was inordinately painful for the both of us for inexplicable reasons beyond our similar archetypal response. As we were leaving at the end of the event, Hoddy took me aside and said, “No more f**king yard sales.”

Hoddy and I both retired from the Island Institute after a nearly 30-year partnership. But we continued to see each other regularly—both in Portland, where we met at Conservation Law Foundation meetings and on Vinalhaven when we shared many spirited dinner discussions.

We both shared a love of Arctic adventures, where Hoddy had first visited as a college student with Admiral Donald MacMillan aboard the schooner Bowdoin. He then returned to the Arctic four or five times, including a voyage on which we were both passengers from Iceland to Spitsbergen where we crossed the 80th latitude only 600 miles from the North Pole.

We both shared a love of Arctic adventures, where Hoddy had first visited as a college student with Admiral Donald MacMillan aboard the schooner Bowdoin.

On one of Hoddy’s Arctic expeditions aboard his specially designed ketch-rigged motor sailing vessel Tuak, he and his companions rounded into a small cove on the remote northern tip of Labrador and were surprised to find another vessel anchored there. As they came ashore for an unexpected rendezvous, the other party hastily packed up their gear and rowed back to their vessel without so much as a sidewise glance. The Tuak voyagers were shocked at this breach of basic maritime courtesy, but had the last laugh when they discovered the departing crew had left a movie camera behind in their haste. The camera case had the address of the owner, who may have been surprised by the irreverent visual message Tuak’s crew recorded on film of four moons rising at the head of the beach.

When Hoddy was clearly failing, Institute co-founder Peter Ralston and I went to see him a final time. Peter projected some of his stunning images of the Arctic while I read some of my ice-inspired poems. I like to think that Hoddy, in the last week of his life, in addition to the surrounding love of his family, eased out of this world with images of his two favorite region— the frozen reaches of the Arctic and the beauty and characters of the Maine islands.

Philip Conkling founded and served as president of the Island Institute from 1983 to 2013. He now runs Philip Conkling & Associates. See