When it came to Jack Hildebrand, he knew how to treat his customers.
At least that’s what his former customers, friends and neighbors say.
Hildebrand, 86, died March 26 at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Gig Harbor. A longtime resident of Bainbridge Island, many people today know only the street that bears his name. But for the old-timers on the island, they knew Jack.
“He was so kind and so nice to everybody,” said Ann Syvertson. “Jack knew everybody back in the day, and everybody knew Jack.”
He began his gasoline station career in Bremerton in 1958 where he owned a Chevron station downtown for 20 years. There, he was known as the “hardest working man in Bremerton,” according to the local daily.
In 1975, he moved his family to Bainbridge Island where he owned Village Chevron for another 23 years. That station sat just about where Safeway sits today. When the Safeway shopping center was being planned, Hildebrand agreed to move his station to the corner of Highway 305 and High School Road. Although he sold the station years ago, it just recently closed and has fallen to the wrecking ball in recent weeks.
Because of Jack’s contributions to the community and his willingness to move his station to make way for progress, the city named the street that ran on the west side of his new location Hildebrand Lane.
It’s the old station “up the hill” that Syvertson remembers the most. She’s lived on the island for 40 years.
“It was a full-service station,” she said. “You could get gas and you could get your car fixed.”
It was always busy, she said, and customers loved Jack because he’d step outside and say “hello” to each and every one of them.
“He always had a great big smile on his face,” she said. “He was a people person.”
And animals loved him as well.
“I had a friend who lived near the station,” Syvertson said. “She had a big German Shepherd who, every morning, would take a rock in his mouth and take it over to Jack and drop it at his feet. It was a gift for him.”
Marilyn Allen remembers when she stopped by the station, Jack “loved to talk about real estate.”
“Being in real estate, he’d want to know what was going on,” she said. “From time to time, he bought and sold real estate personally for himself, and he was pretty smart about it.”
She recalled during the 1970s gas rationing that Jack and his son, Mark, would come out and talk to the customers about when they hoped to have more gas.
“There were lines of people wanting to fill up,” she said. “And Mark would have to count the cars and go and stand at the one where they’d run out of gas in the pumps. He’d hold a sign that said, ‘No more gas after this car.’”
Sometimes, the remaining cars would just stay in line, hoping more gasoline would arrive.
Allen has a daughter who is now 50 and said Jack would fill her daughter’s car with gasoline when she was in high school, even if she couldn’t pay.
“She’s only told me that recently,” Allen said.
In the early days, her cars weren’t anything fancy, but Jack would work on them anyway.
“Some of my cars were held together with glue,” she said. “But Jack did everything he could to keep them running.”
And she’d put it on her Standard/Chevron credit card because the station would give her points toward plates and dishes that were given away.
Both Jack and his wife Millie were well-known and active in a lot of Bainbridge Island community events, Allen said.
“Just lovely people,” she said. “Jack was just one very special member of the community.”
Former customer and friend George Syvertson recalled that Jack’s station was about the only full-service station on Bainbridge Island when he moved to the island 40 years ago.
“He was just great,” Syvertson said. “He had style. And he knew what good customer service was all about.”
He even extended credit to customers when needed.
“If somebody’d come in for a brake job and wouldn’t have the money, Jack would give them credit on a handshake,” Syvertson said. “And they’d come back and pay him later.”
Throughout the years, all of Jack’s kids worked at the station from time to time, Syvertson said.
Syvertson remembers Jack always having a huge grin on his face.
“He’d come out and greet you, shake your hand, and ask if you were having a good day,” he said. “And if you weren’t, by the time you left, you were in a good mood.”
Mark Hildebrand, Jack’s only son, worked with his dad for 25 years in the gasoline station. He recalled that his father was good with names.
“He knew every customer by name and he knew all of their kids’ names,” Mark said. “My dad had a great work ethic and he did a lot for this community as well.”
Among the activities he supported were Little League, Pee Wee leagues, and all sports at Bainbridge High.
After retiring from the gasoline station business, Jack spent time with his family and eventually moved to McCormick Woods in Port Orchard. He and his wife, Millie, were married 66 years. She survives, as do his children Reeta, Mark, Cynthia and Marla. He had 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
At his passing, the family placed a bouquet of red roses on the street sign that honors Jack at High School Road and Hildebrand Lane.