After giving up on college, the witty and caring big man took a job at Bachman's and stayed for 43 years.
Charley Hillger's flower arrangements for churches weren't designed just for the people in the pews. They were full and rounded, with a little reward for the choir standing behind the altar: a butterfly on a stick or a face drawn on a pumpkin in a Thanksgiving horn-of-plenty.
Hillger, who died last month at 66 after a short bout with pancreatic cancer, worked for Bachman's for 43 years. A big man, he was known for his thoughtfulness, his artistry, his gourmet tastes and his bear hugs.
While his work took him into some of the wealthiest homes in the Twin Cities, colleagues say he took the same care preparing a wedding arrangement as he did decorating Curt Carlson's house or doing the flowers for Hubert Humphrey's funeral.
Others in the industry recognized his floral arrangements for their distinctive style -- loose, airy and natural, often featuring delphiniums and sometimes butterflies.
"He had a flair for it," said Bachman's President Paul Bachman, who knew Hillger for more than 40 years. "With families who were grieving or with brides, he was just able to connect on a real human level. He was witty, a fun person to be around and extremely caring."
When Hillger worked with someone who was hard of hearing, he learned sign language, son Joshua said. At Hillger's recent funeral, people recalled how he was always hugging people.
Bachman said that when the company had a training session on sexual harassment, there was lots of talk about respecting personal space. Hillger was standing at the back of the room.
"When it was over, who is ... giving hugs to people he hadn't seen for awhile?" Bachman said with a laugh. "Everyone understood."
Hillger grew up in Redwood Falls, Minn. At age 10, he got a job cutting asparagus; by the time he was 12, he was working in a greenhouse. He attended Macalester College in St. Paul but had trouble getting up for an 8 a.m. class and decided to look for work instead. When he saw an ad for a job at Bachman's, he took a bus from St. Paul to Lake and Lyndale in Minneapolis, assuming that the south Minneapolis Bachman's was nearby. He ended up walking 30 blocks to his interview and got the job.
A year later he was drafted and served with the Army in Vietnam. In 1967, he returned to Bachman's for good, working in a variety of roles before taking over floral specialties, which handled large events, private parties and weddings.
His favorite jobs were for funerals because he felt he was doing something for the grieving family, said his wife, Judy.
"He was effervescent," she said. "He loved people."
Hillger, who retired in 2007, was a gourmet cook and an avid traveler. The Hillgers hosted holiday parties and dinners for friends, with Judy acting as sous chef to her husband. When one of their guests waxed nostalgic about "Little Red Hens," a child's dish he had eaten decades ago at Marshall Field's in Chicago, Hillger tracked down the recipe, made it for the friend's birthday and gave him a framed picture and letter from the restaurant.