Bill explained that the desire for change was “in my DNA.” Back when he was five years old, he remembers causing consternation in his family for his choices – frequently being the one to befriend the outsider at school. While he came from what he describes as a conservative family, he had a brother with Down’s Syndrome, who his parents raised at home. There were no social services to provide assistance, so his parents founded a school to provide them. He saw his parents work for structural change to improve the lives of others.
When Bill was 16, he contracted polio, which played a significant role In the development of his own identity. He spent the better part of a year recovering from the illness – including a long stint with pneumonia – but still graduated with his class.
His childhood experiences solidified his commitment to work for social justice. He majored in social work at Hamline University. He earned his MSW at the University of Minnesota. His experiences in social work are too extensive to share in this article, though it is well worth asking him about some of them over a cup of coffee during fellowship hour. In 1964, he found his way to Duluth and began working at the Human Development Center (HDC). It was here that he developed his commitment to working with young people dealing with issues of addiction. This was at a time when the Minnesota Model, which approached alcoholism as a disease and not a character flaw, was being established. Bill helped to implement some of the programs in St. Louis County to help deal with issues of addiction, including a treatment center for addicted youth, which he designed and directed.
His passion for justice extended beyond his job. Believing livable and affordable housing is key to family and community stability, Bill worked for many years with organizations addressing neighborhood revitalization and affordable housing. He was involved in politics, and was an active supporter of Eugene McCarthy because of his anti-war position.
Bill’s work also brought him in contact with Peace Church. While he was licensing homes for foster care, he met Bob and Kay Stevens who invited him to attend Peace Church. In coming to Peace, he found a loving community of people who were concerned about justice.
After retiring in 1997, Bill committed himself to being active in a way that hadn’t been possible during his employment. In 2001, he attended his first protest at the School of the Americas in Georgia. The action took place on the heels of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and there was a great deal of tension about what would happen.
From this experience, Bill decided to become part of the voice for voiceless people in Latin and South America who were being oppressed by our own government’s policies. He became very active with Witness for Peace, traveling to Latin America, and speaking out about needed changes in U.S. foreign policy when he returned home.
All of this has helped Bill to formulate his faith as a follower of Jesus who recognizes the power of a larger community. Through more than 30 years as a member of Peace Church, Bill has also had a significant impact on this place. From the beginning, he has been deeply involved with of issues of peace and justice. He has persistently asked penetrating questions about what we as a church are doing to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities. He played significant roles in capital campaigns for making the building more physically and spiritually welcoming. Through it all, Bill is clear that the work is not about him as an individual, but about serving a larger community that attends to justice on both a structural and individual level.
Bill Hardesty’s life story shows that the work of justice truly is in his DNA. Peace Church is lucky that he found his way to our community so his genetic expressions can touch all of us.
Interviewed by Doug Bowen-Bailey
Thank you to Pamela Mittlefehldt for editing the Voices for Justice article each month!