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Fritz Hull: Changing Whidbey with hope, creative action | HOMETOWN HERO

Fritz Hull (center) stands with his son Timothy and wife Vivienne.  More than 40 years ago, Fritz and Vivienne founded Chinook Learning Center, which later became Whidbey Institute at Chinook. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Fritz Hull (center) stands with his son Timothy and wife Vivienne. More than 40 years ago, Fritz and Vivienne founded Chinook Learning Center, which later became Whidbey Institute at Chinook.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

What visions and dreams do you see for the future?

Fritz Hull says, “Humans have the remarkable ability to see something that does not exist, as if it already does, and then to act to bring it into form. Anyone can be a visionary — as long as they hold hope and belief.”

Hull believes he has the responsibility to help however he can to serve a greater cause than himself.

Fritz Hull, along with his wife Vivienne, founded Chinook Learning Center over 40 years ago, which later became Whidbey Institute at Chinook.

Those who know Hull call him a visionary who dreams up ideas not for personal gain, but to help humanity feel a sense of belonging and responsibility.

“(Fritz and Vivienne) have been a wellspring of hope through the land and programs that have quietly inspired many people around the world,” remarks Jerry Millhon, executive director of the Whidbey Institute. “Over the years, many moved to Whidbey to share their work and create a positive impact on this island. Fritz’s talent for seeking potential, courage to initiate bold action, and reverence for the spirit of the land have distinguished him as a true Whidbey Island treasure.”

“Quite often we never know what seeds we sow in our life path,” Millhon said. “In this case, it is quite clear that he has had a profound effect on many.”

Hull has been inspired by the late Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest and environmental author, who sometimes taught at Whidbey Institute.

“Thomas helped us see all life as sacred, and to believe in the emergence of a new ecological age,” Hull recalled.

The Thomas Berry Hall at Whidbey Institute was named in his honor.

Hull himself is an ordained Presbyterian minister and served in a large church in Seattle from 1963-72. “It’s a great church, and Vivienne and I enjoyed our time there, and loved the people,” he said. “We weren’t rejecting something but moving out into something new and innovative.”

Hull began to envision a societal need beyond the church. He knew someone could take his place as a minister, but wondered if someone else would carry out this vision he felt led to take on. That vision was to go back to Whidbey Island where his parents had a summer home and create a community site where people could come together and become inspired to follow their visions and dreams and feel a sense of belonging to each other and to the earth.

Hull says, “It was central to our new work to welcome people of all faith traditions who were seeking new spiritual expressions.

“This would be mostly an outdoor setting, where Vivienne and I believed we could reconnect with wild nature, and with others learn a new way of living in harmony with the natural world. So we left the security of a mainline church vocation — along with a steady paycheck and, most important, our church friends — to create the next mission, a calling I could not ignore. We were committed to doing everything we could to make it happen. We purchased 15 acres with an old, abandoned farm house on it. There were fits and starts, the usual naysayers, and some discouraging times. We learned to push through the self-doubt, stay committed to the dream and find others who shared the dream. With many wonderful people on South Whidbey and beyond, it slowly became a reality — the Chinook Learning Center and what is now called the Whidbey Institute.”

Kurt Hoelting, a Whidbey Institute neighbor and author writes, “I am one of many people on South Whidbey who made this island my home because of Fritz Hull. I first came to Whidbey as a student of Fritz’s in 1970 when he was campus minister at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. Fritz’s vision and passion in forming the Chinook Learning Community in the early ’70s, and the Whidbey Institute in the early ’90s, in both cases had a profound influence on my life and work. It has been a great privilege to have Fritz as a mentor and lifelong friend.”

“I have always been energized by the experience of the mystery of life, and a strong sense of the transcendent,” says Hull. Visiting inside the StoryHouse building, another of Hull’s visions, it’s easy to see how contagious his visions can be.

“This was an open picnic shelter that Greg Gilles built,” Hull said. “I was lying in a hammock in it one day, looking at the beauty Greg had built, and I thought ‘this structure has to be preserved.’ I began to imagine a building created out of this open shelter,” and the 900-square-foot StoryHouse was born.

It’s a mixture of old and new, artworks and antique furniture which makes for an inviting, cozy cottage atmosphere complete with a warm stove. StoryHouse, located on 30 acres next to the Institute, is the base for Hull’s work called “Spirit of Legacy,” a project of the Whidbey Institute. StoryHouse now serves a number of programs and groups.

Hull’s latest visionary endeavors are primarily for young people of all backgrounds. He said when he read that the average young person, ages 8 to 18, spends eight hours indoors each day looking at a screen, he was troubled. This is a “nature deficit disorder,” he said, which “calls us to find ways to bring young people back into understanding and loving nature.”

Hull began to dream and envision, and is now developing the School for Knowing Home, a learning environment for children. He has written up a plan for this creative outdoor project. He states that one can have a vision, but it must also be practical.

“The vision is just part of what is needed; I spend a lot of time mowing the grass and doing the tedious work as well,” he said.

He added that we all have a deep desire to belong.

“I want every child to know that we have a common origin, we all come from stardust, and we belong to the whole of creation,” he said. “The powers that sustain the universe will sustain us as well.”

Sharon Parks, Whidbey Institute senior fellow says, “I have known Fritz and Vivienne since 1969. They have a remarkable ability to recognize key needs emerging in our society and gather people together to explore how to create a better future for ourselves and others. Fritz is a man of big ideas, hopes, and meaningful aspirations. He is spiritually aware, trained as a Christian minister, and has a strong sense of vocation and purpose. (He is) always listening for what is being asked of him.”

Hull says he wakes up all the time with visions of new programs for children and youths.

He enthusiastically talks about a village of tree houses.

“Kids will love them, and I don’t think we will be able to keep adults out of them either,” Hull said.

Because he is practical, he has written out every detail of how this would work, from a budget to what and who is needed.

Ross Chapin, an architect and volunteer remarks, “I first met Fritz in 1979 when I came to the island to visit the Chinook Learning Center. I was taken at once by his vision. It was grand and optimistic, yet neither airy nor intangible. It starts here — making trails, fixing up an old farmhouse, and listening to each other speak to the challenging questions of our time. His deep desire and pleasure has always been to create places that connect us to our own sense of spirit, inspiration and meaningful work.”

Hull’s dedication to protecting land resulted in the growth of the original farm from 15 acres to 72 acres; the Legacy Forest adds another 30 acres. Today it’s a 100-acre retreat and conference center with most of the land protected by the Whidbey Camano Land Trust.

Speaking particularly of land Hull states, “We do not really own anything here on this earth, we are only stewards of it for a short time. We must steward it for now and for the next generation.” He says one of the questions he poses to himself over and over is: “What is being asked of me while I am here on this earth?”

 

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