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Repairing church is a labor of love for 87-year-old volunteer

12/17/2015 3:00 PM |

Russell Tillman

Four months, more than 500 hours, $8,000 in labor and countless moments of frustration.

That’s the cost Russell Hillman of Cutchogue paid to repair a crumbling structure at Cutchogue Presbyterian Church.

One of the posts supporting the church façade had been decaying, so Mr. Hillman, 87, a retired engineer who owned his own construction business, took matters into his own hands.

He worked six hours a day, six days a week, hammering and sawing and pasting and painting. After all his hard work, Mr. Hillman finally finished this week — though that’s unlikely to slow him down.

Mr. Tillman took photos of his work as he went along, including one taken Sept. 6 demonstrating the damage inflected by wood rot before he repaired this section. (Credit: Russell Tillman, courtesy)
Mr. Hillman took photos of his work as he went along, including one taken Sept. 6 demonstrating the damage inflected by wood rot before he repaired this section. (Credit: Russell Hillman, courtesy photos)

“I will probably continue to work until I leave Earth and go to another place,” he said last Thursday, while working on the post he rebuilt. “When I finish here, believe me, I’ll be looking for another project.”

Mr. Hillman is part of the church’s board of directors, and once someone pointed out a deteriorating column and its base to the right of the building’s front steps, he took it upon himself to fix it.

Originally built in the 1880s, that whole chunk was suffering from extensive wood rot, Mr. Hillman said, to the point where a piece of trim fell right off when he touched it.

“Everything was so rotten, I tore three-quarters of it apart with my fingers,” he said.

Since he could not remove the base pedestal itself without risking a roof collapse, Mr. Hillman repaired it piecemeal, first stripping the paint off to see the extent of the damage and then adding newer pieces of wood to plug holes chewed open by the fungus.

He then built 36 10-degree wedges to form a new column, which he then carved by hand last month to match the contour of the existing columns.
He then built 36 10-degree wedges to form a new column, which he then carved by hand last month to match the contour of the existing columns.

The column itself was so far gone that Mr. Hillman had to scrap it altogether and build a new one himself.

“It was in bad condition,” said Richard King, a pastor at the church. “The building wasn’t going to fall down, but that column had no strength left.”

So Mr. Hillman stuck a block of wood in its place to support the roof’s weight, and then busied himself creating three dozen 10-degree wedges. After that, he put the wedges together to form a rough new piece and carved it by hand to mirror the contours of the original columns.

To his surprise, that section took only a day total.

The church paid about $700 for materials and Mr. Hillman did all the work for free. In doing that, he saved the church $8,000 or more in labor costs, he said, since a carpenter would charge about that much for the same amount of work.

Fellow church member Tom Wickham said the work Mr. Hillman has done for the church, including replacing the front door to the fellowship room, is always done in an authentic way that keeps with the tradition of the church.

Once Mr. Tillman began destroying the original column, the degree of wood rot became even more clear in late November (see below photo).
Once Mr. Hillman began destroying the original column, the degree of wood rot became even more clear in late November.

“It’s a small church, so everyone contributes in his or her way,” Mr. Wickham said. “This is his way. It’s an outward manifestation of his appreciation.”

Mr. Hillman will admit it: At times, the work was vexing, despite his years of construction experience as the owner of Cutchogue Development Corp.

“On a job like this, if you count hours, you feel defeated,” Mr. Hillman said. “You don’t count hours. You just enjoy the progress … You just take it microjob by microjob.”

And for Mr. Hillman, the project is not just a labor of love; it’s also a way to keep himself busy at the age of 87.

“It keeps an old man alive,” he said. “It’s exercise. It’s something to do.”

The project was completed just this week.
The project was completed just this week.

The octogenarian is quite popular at the church — anyone who walks by as he is working has to stop and chat — and it’s not hard to see why, considering his sprightly verve and playful demeanor.

“Very few could do what he did,” Pastor King said. “I can’t believe his energy at his age. It’s incredible.”

He’s full of one-liners, too. On carpentry: “That’s where the fun is.” On staying healthy at his age: “You can’t sit around all day and do crosswords.” On doing construction work in his retirement: “I say I’ve retired, but really, I’ve just changed occupations.”

Next, Mr. Hillman says, he might turn his attention toward fixing the leaky church roof or toward some siding that needs replacing.

“He’s just amazingly dedicated,” Pastor King said. “The dedication to the church and using his talents — it’s just amazing.”

Top photo: Russell Hillman, 87, built this replacement column by hand for the Cutchogue Presbyterian Church building and repaired the base underneath it. He estimates the project took him more than 500 hours. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)

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CORRECTION: Russell Hillman’s name was originally misspelled in this article, including the Dec. 17 print version.

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