Whidbey Institute

A legacy began when Fritz and Vivienne Hull fell in love with a worn down, abandoned farmhouse in 1966.

It was once owned by a Finnish family by the name of Pietla that came to Whidbey at the turn of the century. The Hulls immediately purchased the farmhouse and the almost 100 acres it rested on near what is now Campbell and Cultus Bay roads.

“There was something about this land that we couldn’t walk away from,” he said.

It is page one in the continuing story of what over time has become the tale of the Whidbey Institute, a widely known nonprofit based in Clinton that works to cultivate creative leadership and community for the betterment of the Earth, spirit and the human future.

But before Whidbey Institute existed, there was Chinook.

Soon after the Hulls bought the farmhouse, they realized they wanted to offer classes and discussions in personal empowerment, spiritual and natural study to people who had a concern for the earth.

“Many things happened to our country in the 1960s that needed positive solutions,” he said. “We needed to create positive ways to generate a peaceful society together.”

Fritz, a Presbyterian minister with a doctorate in the spiritual consciousness and the natural order, and Vivienne, an educator experienced with sociology and psychology, decided to meld their backgrounds and their desire for society to help create future leaders of the world.

In 1972, the Chinook Adult Learning and Retreat Center was born when almost 100 people crammed into the old farm house on Oct. 1 for its first meeting.

“We wanted human kind to look at their relationship to the world,” Hull said.

The first gatherings for this deep way of thinking had humble beginnings.

“We used the field a lot,” he said.

Gatherings were also held in the farmhouse, which Hull worked 10 years to remodel after it was purchased. Larger meetings were held at Bayview Hall or the Clinton Progressive Hall. Today, the five-year-old Thomas Berry Hall is often packed to its 200 person capacity, and larger seminars have to be held at Kane Hall at the University of Washington.

Hull had, and still has, an undying admiration for the Chinook lands and its ability to take people out of the chaotic world around them and into a place where they can focus on a better future.

“To be in a natural environment is important for the clear thinking people need to do to think about things as important as the Earth and the human future,” he said. “They need an environment where people learn to trust and build on love and trust.”

Just over a decade ago, Chinook Adult Education Center evolved into the interfaith, educational nonprofit Whidbey Institute, which celebrated its official 10th anniversary in January.

“We wanted to encourage creative leadership and work with skilled, courageous people willing to bring forth new thinking in a world of severe challenges,’ he said. “We’re building a community of confidence and hopefulness.”

The institute’s programs involve spiritual intertwinings that blend an awareness of nature, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Native American spirituality, but are not limited to any religion belief or spirituality. Because of this, the institute has had its skeptics.

A lack of information about the goals of the Chinook Learning Center, and eventually the Whidbey Institute, gave way to backlash at the organization and its founders.

“People were asking us about animal sacrifice; it was terrible,” Hull said.

“What we have here in an inclusive, hospitable, open spirit that’s working toward the betterment of the Whidbey, bioregional and world communities.”

That vision is strongly based on the lengthy Earth Charter.

The group has also been so influenced by the Catholic priest Thomas Berry famous for his writings on cultural history that they named their new hall after the man.

Carolyn North, the institute’s newly appointed executive director, said people’s impressions of the organization’s mission need updating. North has followed the activities of the Whidbey Institute for over a decade.

“Their Web site has always had these amazing articles that fascinated me,” she said. “They were always a watermark for what is emergent and what people need to think about.”

Those changes include the institute’s transition three year’s ago to a director leadership from its original founders model. Larry Daloz, Ron Admiral and now North have filled the director slot.

North is a trained anthropologist of medicine and religion. She moved to Whidbey from Maryland in January.

She talks of a radical shift in the human experience, and how the menu of programs the institute and other organizations like it must adjust to the changing human world.

“We need to look at all people of our community and support all ages and the way people desire to age,” she said.

The institute is changing both in terms of personnel and in facilities. The newest of its many buildings is an intricately built sanctuary, which is still in need of finishing touches before its official opening.

“It will be a place for silent celebration, spiritual contemplation and any tradition,” North said.

Programs offered by the Whidbey Institute now include an educational exchange program with Schumacher College in England, pilgrimages to the Celtic island of Iona, Powers of Leadership retreat series, women’s retreats, Spirited Work, Bountiful Table, Leadership for the New Commons and a wide range of programs, retreats, events, and offering of resources.

Unknown to many people, Hull said, is the fact that there are many offerings by the Whidbey Institute at little to no cost to the public.

“We’re criticized for being too expensive but people don’t even take advantage of what we offer for free,” he said.

The Chinook lands are filled with trails that are open to the public, as well as a labyrinth. The upcoming Lyceum series is an example of a low-cost program that is open to everyone.

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