A Love Story:
Mary Powell & Harv Hillis

Harv Hillis

Author: Lace Thornberg  |  Published: September 28, 2021  |  Category: Profile
Many people contribute their time, talent and passion to make desert conservation successful. Today, we introduce you to two longtime ONDA members and to an initiative to cultivate the next generation of conservation leaders.

When Mary met Harvey

Mary Powell grew up in the Bronx. Harv Hillis was born and raised in Bend; his mother had arrived here in 1917, his father in 1921.

As a young adult, Mary left New York City with the brave and wild notion of becoming a wilderness ranger in Wyoming. Harv went to work for the family business.

That their paths ever crossed feels improbable. Unless you’ve met them. Then, it seemed inevitable.

Mary did indeed become a wilderness ranger in Wyoming, a feat which had required her to learn to ride and manage horses overnight. She went on to hold numerous roles with the U.S. Forest Service and as a volunteer with the Bureau of Land Management which had her living in small hamlets in Wyoming and Colorado, before she landed in Bend on Labor Day weekend in 1979.

Shortly after that, Mary took on a temporary assignment at Oregon Equipment Company, the commercial refrigeration company managed by the Hillis family. One day, when she wanted a bit of financial advice, she sought out Harv. She had rarely interacted with him but presumed that as part of the leadership team at a successful business he might be able to help her out.

Her question prompted a friendship that grew into a relationship and strong partnership.



Time Lapse: a night at Canyon Camp in six seconds

Time Lapse: a night at Canyon Camp in six seconds


What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia  


Owyhee Canyon Swallows Sparrows and Rushing Water

Owyhee Canyon Swallows Sparrows and Rushing Water

Mary Powell

Exploring the desert together

Harv and Mary made many trips to and through Oregon’s high desert, camping most often in a few favorite spots on Hart and Steens Mountain.

Together, they ran Oregon Equipment Service Corp, which they sold in 1993, with Harv going to work for the business that had been his main client: Deschutes Brewery. At this point, Mary had more flexibility and time to spend in the desert and she often did so by taking part in the multi-day stewardship trips that ONDA hosted deep in Oregon’s high desert with the couple’s longtime, close friend Phyllis Pengelly at her side. (Known for their friendship and inseparability, Mary and Phyllis were the collective winners of the ONDA Volunteer of the Year award in 2015.)

For the better part of a decade, Mary would come home from ONDA stewardship trips and regale Harv with tales of wildlife sightings, glorious sunsets, abundant laughter and hard-earned triumphs.

Despite their detail, Mary’s post-trip stories did not adequately prepare Harv for what he would experience when he was finally able to join his wife and their friend on an ONDA-led fence-pulling trip at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Harv had planned on taking part in the work, but he’d also packed his mountain bike and a book to read, and counted on taking a nap or two.

After three days of wrangling barbed wire, Harv left satisfied but exhausted. And, let’s just note here that Harv was a powerlifter and football player, not exactly a softie. When he expressed his surprise at how physically demanding the work had been, Mary exclaimed, “Well, yeah! What did you think I was doing out there?”

“Having fun, I guess,” was Harv’s bemused reply.

Honoring an understated man

Late in 2019, Harv learned that he had an aggressive illness. Suddenly, Harv and Mary’s time together was spent less often in the high desert’s far reaches, and more often at home in Tumalo, observing the natural world in their backyard.

As Harv’s physical health took a sharp decline, Mary negotiated a deft compromise; she’d allow his “no-good body” to depart, with his promise that his spirit would stay by her side. In May 2020, with a great horned owl perched in the willows outside his bedroom window, Harv’s body died.

In the months that followed, Mary came to ONDA with a notion. She knew she wanted to make a significant donation to the organization to honor and memorialize Harv.

As Mary and ONDA staff batted ideas back and forth, they settled on establishing an internship program. ONDA had long wanted to offer paid internships to ensure that people of all financial backgrounds could gain professional experience in conservation work, not just those who could afford an unpaid internship. With Mary’s financial support, this objective could be realized.

In the summer of 2021, ONDA invited our first applicants to the Hillis Internship, which is intended to provide opportunities for early-career individuals to gain skills and experience and connect to the high desert landscape.

As a New York-born and raised desert appreciator, Mary loves the idea of providing a viable career option for “people who just aren’t city people” and she’s glad to have found a meaningful way to honor Harv and preserve his memory. Both Mary and ONDA are looking forward to welcoming our first Hillis Intern this fall, and seeing how Hillis Interns go on to shape conservation work long after their time at ONDA.

Inspired by Mary and Harv’s special story? You may contact Allison Crotty to discuss your gift. Supporting the conservation of Oregon’s desert while honoring or memorializing a loved one is also available when you contribute via ONDA’s secure online donation form.

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