The Roanoker - November/December 2017 - 110
LL STORIES HAVE beginnings and endings;
joy and sadness; places and players we care
But the very best stories have heroes we don't forget.
Heroes' stakes are high; the battles are well-fought. And
when all is said and done, a hero's hard-won victories
spin endlessly into future times and lives.
So here's a story that has it all. It's the story of a time
and place, of vision and passion-and therefore of risk.
It is, most of all, a hero's story.
John Hillert was hiking in the Blue Ridge with his
wife, Gayle. It was 2005, and the Wisconsin native was
about to retire from a 28-year career in human resources.
Gayle remembers the decision to come East to live like
this: "John looked out over the mountains and valleys
and said, 'You know, I think I could live here.'"
They called a realtor in Lexington who discouraged
them from looking at houses in Clifton Forge, labeling
it "a depressed town."
Which, in 2005, was an accurate label for the former
C&O Railway hub. The Locomotive Shops, which in
the early 1950s had employed more than 2,000 people,
had shut down; workers had been transferred to Huntington, West Virginia and Cumberland, Maryland. The
cash-strapped city reverted to town status in 2001, and
many of the businesses on Ridgeway and Main streets
110 | NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2017
Being people who aren't afraid to take on the unknown, the Hillerts bought the house and moved to
Clifton Forge from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, the state
that John had called home for most of his life, and where
he and Gayle had lived for decades.
That's 900 miles. That's leaving home. That's crossing the threshold into an unknown land where the unknown waits.
The unknown that was waiting for John Hillert was a
dark and musty building on Clifton Forge's Main Street.
LIKE THE TOWN AROUND IT, the Masonic Theatre
had fallen on hard times when Hillert saw it in 2007, attending a STARS performance sponsored by Appalfolks
of America. By then, it had stood empty for four years.
"It was where people who didn't have anywhere else
to go hung out," one longtime resident put it. "It wasn't
a piece of Clifton Forge that looked promising."
I don't know what John Hillert saw that night; I'd
been gone from Clifton Forge since the early 1990s.
But I can tell you that when I took my children to see
the reissue of "Snow White" in 1987, the theatre's bats
were as much an attraction as the movie.
I do know from photos and news stories that the Masonic Lodge and Opera House, as it was called when it
opened in 1906, was a stunner. Designed by the prestigious Lynchburg architectural firm of Frye and ChesTHEROANOKER.COM