Obituary: Laban Carrick Hill, 1960-2021 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Laban Carrick Hill, 1960-2021

Children's book author was a voice for racial and social justice

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Laban Carrick Hill - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Laban Carrick Hill

“I have now declared myself Poet Laureate of the Salmon Hole just below the Winooski Dam. I’m thinking about declaring myself music director as well. Perhaps I put up a plaque.”
— Laban Hill, March 20, 2016

Laban Hill, the father, author, performer, friend; the teacher, brother, colleague; the son, neighbor, citizen, poet and person, died in his home on February 15, 2021, in Winooski, Vt., at age 60. He is remembered dearly by his family, daughters Natalie and Ella, ex-wife Elise Whittemore, sister Susan Pfau and mother Kay Colby.

Laban was a first and foremost a storyteller.

Here’s a story about Laban.

He grew up in Memphis, Tenn., in the 1960s. After graduation, Laban moved to New York and enrolled at NYU, where he connected to the St. Mark's Poetry Project and began his lifelong love of poetry. Over the next decade he pursued his education at Baruch College and later at Columbia University, where he earned an MFA in poetry.

In his early twenties, Laban worked as a sales assistant at the New Yorker, where he met Elise Whittemore, whom he later married. Laban soon entered publishing, working at several houses including Scholastic. Intrigued by the Choose Your Own Adventure series, he phoned the editor to propose writing one, only to find out they did not hire authors who lived in New York. As if it were an adventure to be replotted, Laban and Elise had their first daughter, Natalie, in Brooklyn, and shortly thereafter they moved to Vermont. He returned to the editor with his new Vermont bona fides and was hired for many books in the Choose Your Own Adventure series. After his second daughter, Ella, was born, Laban created his own series, The Extreme Sports Mysteries, in which both Natalie and Ella were featured as characters.

In Vermont, Laban wrote over 30 books, including the National Book Award finalist Harlem Stomp!, the Caldecott Honor awardee Dave the Potter, America Dreaming and When the Beat Was Born.

Beyond writing, Laban had a passion for the oral tradition of storytelling and how it allowed for wild twists of extemporaneous invention and humor. With his daughters in tow, Laban took his Jack Tales to schools, coffee shops, libraries and ski lodges across Vermont. In these tales Jack uses his cleverness and bravado to outwit giants, magical creatures and even death. As he laid out the heroic and bumbling adventures of Jack, Laban would tell the story with his whole body. He often brought outrageously absurd props, like an ironing board that served as a snowboard, or a whole watermelon (expertly perforated) to smash over his head.

Teaching was his lifeline, though, and when all else was distant, it gave him a sense of purpose. Laban enjoyed teaching at all levels, from young children to grad students. In addition to the countless classroom invites he received, he taught at Columbia University, Saint Michael's College, the University of Vermont, and at MFA writing programs at Pine Manor and Vermont College of Fine Arts. For the last few years, Laban was deeply engaged with teaching English at Essex High School. His wit, passion, knowledge of literature, and insistent voice for racial and social justice were welcomed by the teachers and students.

Whether for friends, family or strangers, Laban carried with him a profound sense of empathy for others who struggled or lacked agency. When mentally ill citizens were being threatened and killed by local police, Laban was an advocate for better police training. His books on the Harlem Renaissance, the 1960s and Dave the Potter were outpourings of his ever-present commitment to social and racial justice. He carried that commitment across the world when he became a Fulbright Scholar. In Ghana he worked with writer Martin Egblewogbe to found the Ghana Poetry Project (now the Writers Project of Ghana) to promote Ghanaian literature through workshops, readings, publishing and establishing a small press. Upon invitation, he traveled to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines to deepen understandings abroad of U.S. culture and history.

The last years of Laban’s life were a very difficult struggle. Most days he battled just to feel OK, and many days he didn’t succeed. But he did continue to teach and write poetry and be a friend. Those poems, all the ways he loved his family and friends, and all our memories of this man of multitudes will stay dearly with us. May the Self-Proclaimed Poet Laureate of Salmon Hole rest in peace.

For those interested, donations can be made in his name to Pathways Vermont.

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