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Hank goes to heaven

Loretta Boileau shows husband Hank Boileau's Alcoholics Anonymous medallion, marking 39 years of sobriety. A well-known member of the Brainerd area recovery community, Hank succumbed to cancer Monday. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery1 / 2
Hank Boileau, 73, died Monday following a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome. An avid angler, Boileau was also passionate and well known for his role in the Brainerd area addiction recovery community. Submitted photo - Gallery2 / 2

Thirty-nine years ago, Hank Boileau quit drinking.

Thursday, more than 400 people gathered at the Heritage Church in Baxter to remember the man who dedicated four decades of his life guiding others toward sobriety.

"He had a gift of seeing things in other people that others didn't see," said Loretta Boileau, Hank's wife. "He would find value in other people that maybe somebody else would go, 'You're not worth anything.' People who had difficulty with sobriety, he would reach out to them and just not give up."

Those who knew Hank well basked in his boundless positivity and joy, smiled at his passion for fishing and cribbage and witnessed his devotion to his faith and his recovery. It was not until the celebration of his life that the scope of his impact on the lives of others became apparent, Loretta said.

"I don't think anybody ever put it all together," she said. "All the people he influenced, and all the people's lives he touched."

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KLICK! Photo Gallery - Remembering Hank (50 photos)

Hank Boileau, 73, died Monday following a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome. An avid angler, Boileau was also passionate and well known for his role in the Brainerd area addiction recovery community. Submitted Photos.

Klick! here to view!

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Less than a week before Hank, 73, died as a result of a type of cancer affecting his bone marrow, two dozen of those people congregated in the Boileau home to present him with a medallion marking his 39th sobriety anniversary. A tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, the ceremonies typically take place during recovery meetings, although Hank's health precluded him from continuing his participation. Those in attendance ranged from people sober for days numbering in the single digits to those counting decades abstaining from alcohol.

"It was incredible," said longtime family friend and sponsee of Hank's, who wished to remain anonymous in the spirit of AA. "To me, it didn't feel like taking Hank and putting him on a pedestal and bowing to him. ... It was more about, this is what you meant to me, rather than praise. Hank wasn't really into praise for his accomplishments. He had an ego, just like any of the rest of us do, but people got taken care of. What needed to get done, got done."

Born June 29, 1943, Hank grew up in Brainerd in a strict Catholic family and spent the entirety of his life in the area. He worked for one of the city's most iconic employers, the Potlatch paper mill, and exemplified the outdoorsman spirit of northern Minnesota in his exuberant love for all kinds of fishing.

But Hank wasn't always the man those hundreds of people who honored him this week knew. He was once an alcoholic, unable to control an addiction that led him to hurt himself and others.

Hank's daughter, Cherri Hannahs, knew that man once. Her early childhood was marked with poverty, fear and pain.

"Money was always an issue, because Dad drank," Cherri said.

Loretta and Hank's longtime friend described the origin of Hank's alcoholism as motivated by the desire to be "somebody."

"When he started drinking, he was pretty young," Loretta said. "He drank to get drunk. It made him feel like somebody."

"He just didn't feel like he fit," his friend said. "He was an awkward, dumb Polack ... and if I've got this right, he probably stole some Communion wine."

Cherri's mother, Hank's first wife, endured physical abuse at his hands and watched as her husband self-destructed. Cherri recalled retreating upstairs whenever Hank arrived home from work, already drunk from alcohol he consumed on the job.

"If he even heard a peep, he'd be up the stairs with the belt," she said. "I have memories of him coming home drunk and passing out in the entry. ... There were different times where he would put the car in the ditch, or go through the windshield of a Winnebago (motor home)."

When Hank's physical abuse turned toward his children, Cherri's mother filed for divorce. Soon after, Hank checked himself into a treatment facility in St. Cloud, where he stayed for three months. That decision would change the trajectory of Hank's life, forever, as he never once relapsed following his stay.

"He drank until he got to the point where if he didn't quit, he was going to die," said Loretta, who met Hank more than 20 years later.

Cherri experienced her father's transformation at the age of 10, and said doing so helped her gain a deep understanding of right from wrong.

"It's humbling, for the obstacles that he had," Cherri said. "He had to lose himself to find his way. He definitely achieved it. ... He never boasted about any of it, and he led by example."

Hank's way led him along a path that would cross with Loretta's, albeit in an unlikely place for a Brainerd native who'd left the area only to cast his line in a different body of water. More than 8,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, Loretta and Hank were two of a larger group assisting missionaries in the eastern European nation of Romania.

Even in a foreign land, Hank found himself advising others on his experience with recovery. Loretta described one day at a church, when hundreds of Romanians sought to be baptized. Hank was asked to speak once it was learned of his ties to the AA program.

"He got up in front of all these people, and they looked at him like he was a preacher," Loretta said.

Although the two met during that trip, it wasn't until months later when both were invited to a mutual friend's home for a couple's dinner that romantic interest was sparked. Even then, Loretta said it took Hank six months to ask her out a second time.

A year of courtship resulted in marriage, and the couple moved to the home they shared until Hank's death, along the banks of the Mississippi River.

"Hank always loved the river," Loretta said.

Each morning, Hank would rise from bed and look out the picture window in the bedroom at the slow moving waters.

"Every day, it was brand new. Every day, it was great fun," Loretta said. "It could be snowing, it could be raining, it could be 50 below, and he would say, 'Wow, it looks great out there today.'"

The zeal Hank began his days with persisted through everything he did—in advising others seeking sobriety and in offering his service wherever and for whomever needed it.

"Hank didn't tell you what you wanted to hear. He told the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not," his longtime friend said. "If you were looking for sympathy, you were barking up the wrong tree. But if you needed compassion, that was absolutely there."

"Whatever was going on, it didn't matter," said Jon Barrows, Loretta's son. "He just always had a smile on his face."

His diagnosis with myelodysplastic syndrome did nothing to alter this attitude. Up through his last days, Hank concerned himself with ensuring those who needed rides to meetings or were due for medallions marking their progress in sobriety received them. He worried about covering his ministry shifts at the Crow Wing County Jail, a program he was instrumental in starting in the 1980s. He pushed himself to speak at a recovery meeting this fall in spite of his declining health that required others to help him to the podium.

"Hank's attitude was, either I'll get cured, or I'll go to heaven," Loretta said. "Always positive. Never complained. He was concerned that his appointments would interfere with his fishing. He just wanted to get as many fishing trips in as he could."

Hank did not rise Monday morning to greet the day. Instead, as his obituary said, he went home to Jesus.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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