Native son, home again 

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By Craig Lockwood, Special to the Independent

Howard Hills in Washington, D.C. from rooftop of Department of the Interior. Submitted photo

American novelist Thomas Wolf’s legacy truism that “You can’t go home again,” rests on the expectation that “home” will never be what it was when you left.   

That didn’t stop Howard Hills from returning to Laguna after being away for years…more than once.   

“As long as Laguna’s coves are still here,” said Hills, “Laguna will still be my home.” 

Deep Local Roots

In 1999, local journalist Barbara Diamond wrote a feature article about Hills returning home after 18 years of service in Washington. Emphasizing his family’s long local history, she mentioned his grandparents’ 1922 arrival to our once-tiny village after a cold winter in Chicago.  

Howard’s grandmother Julia, had fought for women’s suffrage, and became a local PTA mom. In 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor, Howard’s uncle Bob Hills left his LBHS graduation to serve in that war and another 38 years in the Navy. 

Naval Career 

Hills, as a first-generation native and LBHS graduate, after law school and serving as a Peace Corps lawyer in Micronesia, was commissioned and served as a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander. Today, Howard and his uncle Bob are included on the LBHS campus military service roster. 

Cold War, Strategic Treaties

From 1978 to the end of the Cold War in 1990, Hills served as a U.S. legal expert shaping the strategic treaties with the Pacific Islands nations of Oceania.   

After eight years as a Navy JAG international lawyer for the National Security Council in the White House, his most senior post was as General Counsel of a U.S. State Department agency operating in over 100 countries to promote democracy and free-enterprise economics. With his mission completed, it was time to come home. 

Laguna Landfill

Relocated in Laguna Beach in 1999, Howard and his wife Lura enrolled their two youngest children and three grandchildren in the same local schools he attended. Hills’ contribution as a PTA dad and public education supporter was a continuation of his student activism while serving in 1969-1970 as LBHS Student Body President.   

Reflecting on those years, Hills observes: “Our American civic values really begin at the schoolroom’s door. Students need to learn the basic rights and responsibilities of citizenship in schools, or they won’t know as adults how to participate as citizens in state or national affairs.” 

Recall to Duty

Hills, himself a candidate in the 2018 School Board race, facing a sudden and unplanned assignment in Washington, had to withdraw and expend campaign funds on ads endorsing other candidates. 

“I received a call one day from a military aid in the National Security Council at the White House, asking me if I was the same Howard Hills who was legal adviser negotiating treaties with Pacific Island Nations thirty-five years ago…I almost said ‘no’ because I knew ‘yes’ meant going back to Washington.”    

For the next three years, Hills served full-time as a Senior Adviser to a high-priority treaty negotiation team led by a White House designated Special Presidential Envoy, whose mission entailed negotiating three strategic alliance agreements with Pacific island democracies. 

Howard’s expertise was relied on in both the Trump and Biden administrations, and he was trusted by both Democrat and Republican leaders in Congress.   

With his efforts accomplished, Hills declined job offers and left Washington with hopes of some well-deserved and equally needed R&R. 

Sought by National Media 

Despite being a private citizen again, Hills was soon contacted by media who’d recently discovered treaties he helped negotiate. His impactful interviews for Voice of America urging some fixes during Congressional ratification sparked coverage by Reuters, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.   

“These international agreements keep an area of ocean in the north central Pacific larger than the continental U.S. out of the path of conflict. Keeping our promises of economic support to the island peoples is smart diplomacy, strategically imperative——and a matter of honor for the United States.” 

History Redux

“History,” observes Hills, “unfortunately does have a chance of repeating itself——China has studied Japan’s imperialist playbook in the Pacific from 1920s and 1930s, and that’s a war we never want to fight again.”  

It seems, for this Laguna native son, as Barbara Diamond noted of Hills after his return in 1999, you can go home again.  

Local author Craig Lockwood is a lifetime member of the United States Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association and Society of Professional Journalists

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