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Hillary climbed the highest, helped the lowest

Sherpa dignitaries from all over the United States and representatives of various communities connected to late mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary gathered in Woodside Sunday to pay tribute to his legacy as a philanthropist who helped to modernize Nepal.Hillary, who died Jan. 11 at the age of 88 in his native New Zealand, is best known in the West as the first man to scale Mount Everest, which he did with the aid of his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay in May 1953.But to Sherpas, he is the man who used the attention he gained as a mountaineer to turn the world's gaze to Nepal and to bring education, health care, transportation improvements, environmental awareness and modernity to the people of the isolated, treacherous, mountainous region. In the decades after his climb of Everest, Hillary returned many times to Nepal to build schools and hospitals, to bring funding to create national parks and build roads, and his memory is held in high esteem by the Sherpa community. His contributions to their quality of life were deeply personal and appreciated, and one speaker bit her lip to keep from crying as she described the connection Sherpas feel to Hillary.Dressed in the traditional costume of Nepal, Nima Lhamu Khambache McElhinney, bowed and said a prayer to a large portrait of Hillary adorned with white silk to symbolize mourning before she took the stage to read her eulogy."It has always been difficult not to drop tears even just to thank him, and today even more," she began."We know him as a person who brought us education, brought us health care, brought us pride in our culture and in 40 years brought us from the Middle Ages to the 21st century," she said. "To honor his legacy, to fulfill his desire, we should succeed in this new world and preserve our culture."At least 200 Sherpas, dignitaries and public figures - including a representative of the Dalai Lama - filled the Queens Palace on 57th Street in Woodside to capacity, and more filed in steadily as the event progressed. Sherpa Lamas (monks) clad in red and gold robes opened the ceremony with chanting and music. Women in traditional costumes circulated through the room offering hot yak milk to the audience as speaker after speaker praised Hillary's cultural sensitivity and commitment to preserving Sherpas' way of life even as he helped them to modernize in line with the Western world.Denver resident Nawang Karsang was in one of the first classes of students to benefit from the schools Hillary helped build in the area, and now works in the finance industry."My life is a reflection of what he has done for us. I and all my siblings went to the schools and the hospitals he built," Karsang said. "I see among us doctors, accountants, and it is a measure of how much he has done for us."Hillary also introduced the concept of environmental conservation to the region after he saw how mountaineering and the tourism industry polluted and took a toll on the forests, Dr. Tshering Wangdi Sherpa said."He was culturally sensitive and for cultural preservation. His heart ached at the pollution in the region, and he proposed limiting tourism in the region," he said. Hillary instead raised funds from the New Zealand government to create national parks to preserve the forests that would have been cut down to provide fuel for the climbers.Tashi Wangdi, representative of the Dalai Lama, called Hillary "a legendary figure ... a man of compassion and kindness" and praised his efforts to provide modern education to the Sherpa people and help the Sherpas preserve their cultural heritage."The greatest tribute we can pay him is to continue his work," Wangdi said.State Sen. John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights) pledged to the city's Sherpas his support to preserve their culture. He praised Hillary's selflessness in his efforts to help the Sherpas. "Sir Edmund Hillary was truly a man who built bridges between cultures," he said.Bringing the talk back to Hillary's native New Zealand, that country's trade commissioner and consular representative Chris Tozer, said it was "incredibly moving to see such a gathering of people saying such kind words about the mountaineer-philanthropist. Tozer said that while Hillary was "a hero to many people of great stature and great strength," at home he was just as approachable as he was to the Sherpas."He didn't have a secretary at home; he was just Sir Ed," he said after telling an anecdote about contacting Hillary for a meeting by looking him up in the phone book like every other common citizen.Tozer read some of the headlines and editorials coming from New Zealand in the days since Hillary's death. "Helpful, humble, honest," said one. Another read, "A darned nice guy." "We will not see his like again," said a third.

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