Larry Hill

He finds joy in a loving family

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A visit from his twin 1-year-old granddaughters turns Larry Hill into a different man.

He beams as they clamber into his lap, using the hose from his oxygen concentrator as a climbing rope. He laughs easily, though beads of sweat form on his brow.

But then comes the cough – long and wheezing. As little Addison and Sophia shift their gaze from a toy to “poppa’s” face, their tiny eyebrows arch with worry.

The question in his granddaughters’ eyes hovers over Larry’s days, just as it has for him and his family in the seven years since he was first diagnosed with asbestosis, a disease he was never supposed to have had.

Hill lived 34 of his 55 years in Libby, but never worked at W.R. Grace’s vermiculite mine, where the asbestos dust billowed as a byproduct. Neither did any member of his family, yet both his brothers and parents also have the disease.

Larry was born in Libby and grew up on 608 Main Street in the shadow of W.R. Grace’s vermiculite-toting rigs that rolled into town from the mine, which was located about six miles outside of Libby. He spent his childhood fishing and hunting the surrounding area with his family. The dust was so prevalent it seemed natural.

“You were allowed to hunt all the mountains around the mine, and when it would rain, you could see the leaves – it would just be almost like mud coming off them,” Larry says.

He spent lazy afternoons fishing near the mine site. But, unbeknownst to him, the best fishing hole in town was one of the worst places for asbestos exposure.

“There was never any no trespassing signs or anything to keep you out of it,” he says.

Years later, after a move to Missoula, he blamed his lack of energy on his long workdays as a butcher. But it soon became apparent work wasn’t the culprit.

“When I first moved to Missoula I used to get up and run every morning,” he says. “It would start out at a couple miles, and then I worked it up to about ten or twelve miles every morning before I’d go to work. One morning I’d passed out in a borrow pit and some lady had found me.”

Larry’s disease has progressed to the point where he passes most of his time in a recliner rocking chair in his basement, dividing up his day by the extensive medication regimen he follows. He breathes with the aid of 24-hour oxygen because it’s too painful for him to be up and about much.

Until just recently he spent every night for six months sleeping in the chair, Jenie, at his side in her own recliner, close enough so they could hold hands as they drifted off to sleep.

“It really angers me to have to have my family and friends see me have to go through this,” Larry says, for the moment stilling the rocking chair. He pauses, gazes out the windows of the basement, and takes a shallow, shaky breath, his hands quivering on the chair’s arms. “That’s what really, really irks me. And there’s no reason to have to be like this.”

His wife, Jenie, is a strong and solid partner, but fights to control her emotions when asked how she deals with Larry’s disease.

“It’s hard, it’s hard,” she says, looking toward the basement ceiling and blinking her eyes.

Her friends have asked her if she would have “still signed up for this” if she had known Larry would become so ill.

“I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ Because of everything else that came before, and there’s still all these special moments.” She turns to look at Larry in the opposite chair and reaches for his hand.

“It’s frustrating and it’s distressing, but it’s the way of life now.”

Despite the difficulties each day tosses them, Larry and Jenie can still laugh and joke, and find immeasurable joy in their four grandchildren. The two spend as much time as they can with their twin granddaughters who live in Missoula.

“They love their Poppa,” says Jenie. “Oh my goodness they love their Poppa. I think that was God’s gift to us.”

Larry beams as he thinks about his four grandchildren.

“When everybody’s born they get a fishing pole,” he says. “It’s hung up on their wall at home. [They’re] a piece of sunshine that just makes my heart glow. Hopefully they remember me.”


Larry Hill, 57, passed away from asbestosis January 16, 2010 at his home in Missoula. A memorial was held at his home January 30, which was attended by many of his good friends and family. May you rest in peace, Larry.

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