Roy Hiebert paces the exterior of his home, located just a couple blocks from campus, stopping every few steps to explain the origin, history and purpose of various items. Lumber from houses torn down to make way for construction of the university’s Stevens Center is arranged by length and ready for use as firewood. Aluminum strips from what used to be a student lounge near the Bruin Den now line a raised flowerbed. Steel grates removed during a remodel of the Ross Center serve as a trellis for grapes to climb.
“Everything is useful to someone like me,” he says with a smile. Around back is a garden with cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers and onions. Nearby there are apple and pear trees. And, of course, flowers. Lots of flowers. Roses, dahlias, sunflowers, hydrangeas, and in the spring, daffodils and tulips. His favorites are the roses and dahlias.
“Both have long blooming seasons and they have many blooms for one plant,” he says. That’s an important characteristic for a generous green thumb like Hiebert, who estimates he gives away thousands of flowers every year.
Now 91 years old, Hiebert doesn’t remember when exactly George Fox students began affectionately calling him “Grandpa Roy,” or why he started dining on a regular basis in the university’s cafeteria with young people a fraction of his age. But one thing is certain: He’s been an important fixture in the university community for 40 years and counting. A man whose kind smile and simple gestures transcend generational divides. A listening ear. A word of wisdom. A friend to sit and eat with. The gift of a flower.
“I don’t have what I call friends my own age,” he says. “I tell students that they’re my friends, not older people.”
In many ways Hiebert’s routine hasn’t changed much since he lost his wife to cancer in 1992 – just five years after he retired from his position as associate director of the university’s plant services department.
Hiebert shares a meal and conversation with George Fox students in 1993 – a tradition he continues to this day.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he heads over to the university cafeteria for lunch with his nearly 2,300 “grandkids.”
“I usually sit at an empty table by myself if I can find one,” he says. “I like to be up somewhere near the checker so that when students come in, they see me and they can decide if they want to come visit or they can go someplace else. It’s totally up to them.”
There are many reasons a student might decide to join Hiebert for a meal. To some, he’s a surrogate grandparent. To others, a friend when they feel alone or out of place. To many, a trusted sage, always ready with a joke, old saying or Bible verse that can apply to any situation.
“Everyone is ignorant, just about different things,” he often quips, paraphrasing an old Will Rogers quote.
“Often our disappointments are just an invitation to something better,” he might say to a student who lost a job or did poorly on a test.
To another, he might quote one of his favorite Bible verses, like Psalm 84:11: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.”
“One of the girls who took a long time to find the right guy, I gave her that verse, and she hung onto that for several years before I went to her wedding,” Hiebert recalls.
Whatever the motivation for sharing a meal and conversation with their Grandpa Roy, students are always greeted with a smile and often a rosebud from a greeting card box he carries with him – always a big hit with the young women who tend to make up the majority of his dining companions.
In the evenings, Hiebert turns his attention to delivering flowers on a larger scale. A couple times a week he’ll load up an old cardboard box with all the flowers he can carry and leave them in the area outside the cafeteria where students drop off their trays, also distributing the fragrant gifts to food service workers and others he might encounter along the way. During the summer months when most students aren’t around it’s George Fox employees who are the beneficiaries of his routine deliveries.
But Hiebert has given a lot more than flowers to the university community over the past 40 years, starting back in 1975 when he left his position as a teacher and electrician at a school for missionary children in Ethiopia to accept a job at George Fox. A founding member in 1985 of “Greenroom,” a volunteer student prayer and worship time that is still going strong, he also was recognized in 1996 as the university’s Volunteer of the Year for the more than 240 hours he worked to construct a prayer chapel on campus. And in 1999 he accepted a Christian Service Award from the Northwest Christian Communication Foundation for his work on campus as “encourager and friend.”
As much as he has had a positive impact on the people around him, Hiebert is quick to say that he has equally benefited from his unofficial role as campus grandpa. “One of the things I tell students is you tend to become like the people you spend your time with,” he says. “I feel like that’s one of the things that has kept me from aging as much as I might have. Spending a lot of time with students, it has changed me. And hopefully it has changed some of the students a little bit, too.”