Written by Dave Kliphon, Chair of Burger Hill Sub-Committee
Valerie Kilmer is the model of a dedicated volunteer, someone who truly cares for her community, and who especially appreciates nature. Winnakee Land Trust has been very fortunate to have Val manage the Burger Hill gate stewards since 2007, and while she is retired from that role, she is not retiring from her tireless volunteering for the park. Consider that she has been helping the park even before it was part of Winnakee Land Trust! She is loved by the many, many people who know her, and her knowledge and wisdom is so very much appreciated. She is undeniably a local treasure. Let’s take some time to learn more about Val…
Valerie Staley was born right here at Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck, and spent the first five years of her life on Platt Avenue in the Village. For several years she went to live with her grandmother in Mill River, Massachusetts, but came back for good at age eleven. She was educated in Rhinebeck schools, continued her higher education at Dutchess Community College, got married, and had twin girls who, like her, were born locally.
Val has always been a hometown girl, and thinks it is lovely to have grown up in a town with a smaller population. Having attended a smaller school, she was able to make many lifelong friends. She has always had her heart in the local area, her dad always claimed that they were seventh generation Rhinebeckians… keeping in mind that Rhinebeck was originally a tract that went all the way up to Germantown!
Val and her husband bought a house on Platt Ave in Rhinebeck village, and turned it into their family home. Val worked at many different part-time jobs while her kids were growing up. Needing to find more stable work, she applied and was accepted to be water clerk in Rhinebeck Village. She used to create the water bills on an old National cash register (imagine the sounds!), would stuff and mail envelopes, and even read meters, all while helping the clerk-treasurer.
Despite devoting more and more time to her Village work, at one point Val was juggling seven part time jobs at once! She worked at Wayfair Caterers (Chuck LaForge’s Beekman Arms food service company for local fairs and events), was secretary for the Chamber of Commerce, and worked at the local dry cleaners on Saturdays.
In the early 80’s she was appointed Village Clerk-Treasurer, a position that was often appointed in villages. She held this position for many years, and if she was not already well-known in the Village, she was now known by everyone. For years she was also Zoning Enforcement Officer, a position that gained her some notoriety. All in all, she worked at the Village for 35 years, retiring in 2007.
One day at work, Drayton Grant walked in. Drayton was a driving force in the conservation of Burger Hill as a public park, and Val had already been a gate steward when it opened, and knew Drayton and her husband Wayne Baden well. Given everything else that was going on, volunteering was a great diversion for Val. Anyway, Drayton came into Val’s office to announce that Linda Faber, the dedicated gate steward manager since 2001, was retiring, and asked if Val wanted to take on the role. It felt like a lot of responsibility, but Val said yes, and it turned out to be a wonderful role, and the right decision.
Val took over the formal list of volunteers in 2007, and over the years she has kept lists and lists of stewards’ cancellations, notes, dog names, preferred seasons, etc… Stewards would sign up months ahead, so it was important to call to remind them the week before. Her collection of notes are now amusing memories of everything that needed to be done to keep the stewards on schedule for their weekly gate opening and closing responsibilities.
Val has also been responsible for gate steward recruitment. She found that the best ways to find new stewards was to linger around at Burger Hill and chat with parkgoers, or even better to encourage unsuspecting visitors at the Village office to sign up. It helped a great deal that she knew a lot of people and was born and raised in the area, and she would often recruit friends and acquaintances as they retired.
Helping Burger Hill has always been perfect for Val because she loves the park! She feels like it has been a gem to have a such a quiet and peaceful place so close to the village, and she always meets the nicest people there. It has also been a special place for young families. In the evenings, Val would often see parents bring young children, already in their pajamas. They would take their child as far up the hill as they could go, not getting too dirty, then get them in the car to rush them off to bed. Way to wear them out!
Val says semi-jokingly that volunteering at Burger Hill is for introverts. Typically a gate volunteer doesn’t have to see anyone or go to meetings, just open and close the gate for a week. Gate stewarding has been a way to take pride in volunteering while not being too social. Stewards went to the park anyway, so gate duty has been a way to contribute to the park for a week and feel good about it.
In her time at Burger Hill she has seen many people out enjoying nature and being one with the surroundings…. and lots of happy dogs. She knows that visitors are people who appreciate nature and are glad to be in such a beautiful environment. In her own time closing the gate she has seen just about everything, including a drum circle of women from western New York ceremonially chanting and drumming in the parking area. They had intended to take their extremely large drum to the top of the hill, but did not get far. Apparently their culture felt that the top of Burger Hill was a regional vortex, projecting earth’s energy. Consider that the next time you’re at the top!
Val has always taken pleasure in volunteering, and advises others that it should never be a chore. As she retires as gate steward manager, she regrets that she will not being able to talk to stewards each week. She points out that there are stewards she has never even met. She would often receive names of prospective stewards then call to recruit them, and although they might never recognize each other on the street, they certainly recognized each other over the phone!
What where the stewards like? She says they were always pleasant to talk to over the phone, and does not recall anyone being rude. She got the sense that everyone was happy and willing to volunteer, and they were always apologetic if they could not take on their shift.
Val’s twin daughters are known locally as the Kilmer Twins. She says that they are charming girls, and as valued members of the community have worked at Kilmer’s IGA (no relation), Hoffman’s Barn, the Copper Kettle and other local businesses. You may have seen them around. Val has three grandchildren, and two great grandchildren who she gets to great grand-babysit quite often. Her children and grandchildren live in the area, and she appreciates being able to see and spend time with them. While supporting family has always been important to Val, she is very grateful to having wonderful friends as well.
Val is proud to have inherited her dad’s love of nature. She says he was “a funny, funny man”. Her father was on the Rhinebeck Town Planning Board, and because of his love of nature he was instrumental in preserving its open space. He worked with Brooke Astor to preserve a large part of her local Astor estate; this is now Ferncliff Forest. Val’s brother Knick Staley, along with the Rhinebeck Rotary, operate and maintain the park, making sure it is always shared with the public. Val’s dad was a great example to both her and Knick, and a wonderful volunteer himself.
Until Covid, Val did a lot of traveling, and in particular enjoyed riverboat cruising. She has travelled all over Europe, and once took a strange and fascinating trip through Russia from St. Petersburg to Moscow, traversing some ocean-sized lakes along the way.
Val has always been active, and was a runner in her day. She is an avid biker, hiker and kayaker. She once biked 100 miles from Poughkeepsie to the South Street Seaport, and has done two challenging biking trips in Ireland, often with 40 miles a day on hills and dirt paths, with just a map in hand. She loves going to movies at Upstate Films, cherishes time with family and friends, and enjoys taking care of her home.
Her advice about volunteering is that it is an individual’s choice, but that one needs to look to their heart and find what has meaning. She recommends volunteering as much as possible but she stresses that it has to be something you want to do.
In her many years associated with Burger Hill and Winnakee Land Trust, she has seen plenty of staff come and go. But she herself has been one of the foundations of Burger Hill Park and its history, and she is a fount of knowledge and wisdom.
So thank you Val for all of your hard work and your ceaseless dedication to Burger Hill as gate steward manager. To everyone else, don’t worry, Val’s not going anywhere! She will continue to be a treasured volunteer for the park and a key member of the Burger Hill Subcommittee. So please, if you run into her at the park or in the area, thank her for her tremendous contributions. She has done so much to keep Burger Hill and our area special!