Determined teen Otto Hill earns title 'Mayor of Ocean Park'

Otto Hill has a fondness for people and animals - he sits here with his father's cat, Farley. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

OCEAN PARK - For Otto Hill every day is pretty much the same, but that's how he likes it.

He wakes up in his room at his family's Ocean Park home, surrounded by wrestling posters and action figures, dislodging his fat cat Pokey from the foot of his bed. He has work to do, but to start things out right he cranks up his tunes. On this day, like all others, the choice is some rockin' country western, this time Tobey Keith. He makes his way outside, where he finds his favorite mode of transportation, a bright blue mountain bike, and heads off to make his daily rounds.

Otto is 17 years old, the youngest - but biggest - of three boys, though he started out the smallest, only five pounds. His mother Pam had a tough pregnancy and delivery with her third son. While in labor with Otto, his heart rate continued to drop because his oxygen supply was getting cut off. The doctors thought he had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck perhaps, but upon his birth they found baby Otto to be gripping the cord in his hand. The doctors concluded that every time Pam would have a contraction, Otto would squeeze the cord. And though that was tough, Pam said that was probably the most difficult her son has ever been.

"He asks for nothing in life," said his mother, as she tried to hold back tears.

Otto is a very busy man - he makes his rounds daily on his bicycle, often stopping to chat with passers-by.

"I like people," said Otto. "I just like meeting people and all that. Talking to them."

"He knows so many people," said Pam. "He'll stop along the street and talk to them and sometimes meet new people."

And though talking with folks is one of the greatest loves of his life, Otto sets out each day to do a job - checking the houses that he is commissioned with watching.

It started out about eight years ago when he met some neighbors from Portland with a summer home in Ocean Park with whom he developed a friendship. Because of this, Otto started to watch their home for them while they were gone.

"He'd keep an eye on it when he came home from school and stuff like that," said Pam.

Because Otto is very social with adults, he slowly started meeting more and more people, many asking him to do the same for them.

Otto knows the area well. In fact, if you point out just about any house on the west side of Ocean Park, he can tell you who lives there - including some beach-front condos behind his parents' home, which he said used to be owned by Microsoft.

"He just built this whole business on his own," said his mother. "It's kind of like he fell into it accidentally. The more people that knew about him and met him, the more business he got."

His mother said that some of his clients came by word of mouth, never having met Otto. Sometimes people will go into Jack's Country Store and ask about the young man who would look after people's homes for them.

Otto started out not charging for this service, accepting whatever tips were given. Now, with almost 20 clients, he says he will begin charging a fee - a whole 10 bucks a month - and he saves every penny.

"It's a pretty good amount," said Otto, "some people pay a little bit more."

A few years back because of his popularity in the town, a man asked Otto to ride in the annual Fourth of July parade in the back of a car, and they wanted to put a sign on the side that said "The Mayor of Ocean Park." Though Otto, in a gesture of his modesty, said no to the sign, the name stuck.

"People will send him cards and letters and they address it, 'Otto Hill, Mayor of Ocean Park,'" said Pam.

His mother thinks it is because everybody knows him around these parts. She said that if someone was to walk up to Otto on the street and ask him something about Ocean Park, he could tell them - or at the very least tell them who could.

"Lots of people just call me the mayor," said Otto, "because I know lots of people. It doesn't matter. It's kind of funny."

He said that when he feels like chit-chatting, he may ride his bike over to an elderly woman's house and talk with her, see how she is doing. He works as a housekeeper at the Golden Sands retirement home as well. He does this for school credit right now, though he will be working there on a regular part-time schedule this summer.

"I like talking to the people there," said Otto. "They just have lots to say."

Otto can just about always be found with a smile on his face, whether it's riding around waving at people or maybe joking with some folks at Jack's Country Store about his school picture on display there. "Is that your most wanted picture?" they ask.

"I would fall off my chair if I heard somebody say something negative about Otto because I've never heard it," said Pam. "Ever."

In fact, Otto will probably never leave the town he loves, a town that "just fits him."

"I don't think he'll ever leave Ocean Park," said Pam. "I think he needs the small town."

She went on to say that when visiting Portland, Otto is generally very uncomfortable in that kind of environment. The pace of life in Ocean Park suits him.

"I like the population," said Otto. "I like the small town, where everybody knows everybody."

But he doesn't mind getting away to the city on a rare occasion, especially if it is to see a basketball game by his beloved Trail Blazers.

One of the companies his parents buy products from for their auto body repair business has season tickets to the Blazers. Over the years, knowing Otto's affection for the team, they have passed along some tickets for him to attend some games - prime seats, 15 rows back from the court.

"We're going on March 2," said Otto, obviously excited.

Though many people would never guess by looking at or even talking to him, Otto Hill was born with a disability.

The Webster's dictionary describes autism as "a form of childhood schizophrenia marked by acting out or withdrawal." But Otto's mother said that he is just like everybody else.

"He is so advanced in a lot of things, way above the norm," said Pam, "and then there's other things that he has a lot of difficulty with."

Pam said that growing up, the school system always wanted to label Otto as being mildly retarded.

"And my husband and I were like, 'No. That's not it.' He's different, but that's just not it."

The Hills took Otto to Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland about a year ago, where he underwent a myriad of tests. They've had other tests performed on their son in the past, including cat scans and neurological tests, but to no avail. After seeing a special education evaluator and a psychologist, he was diagnosed with high-functioning autism.

"There are certain things that are real difficult for him. Fine motor skills are real hard. Too many instructions at one time," said Pam.

Certain academic things are also a challenge, though some - like statistics - aren't.

"He could tell you anything about the Blazers," said his mom. "It's just amazing. Phone numbers - he's like a walking telephone book."

"It is a disability, but we try not to make him any different then our other children," said Pam. "He's able to do it, it's just in a little bit different way."

There were signs of his disability as he grew up, his meticulous nature - a classic symptom of autism - was evident even at a young age. Sometimes when playing he would take his Matchbox cars and line them all up, sorting them by color.

Because of his disability, Otto has never been much for socializing with other kids or doing things that other kids would - he's never even dressed up for Halloween. Otto has always been a little older then other kids in that way.

He is very particular about many things in his life, including his clothes. Much like actor Dustin Hoffman in the movie "Rain Man," Otto, too, is very particular about what he wears.

"He has to wear the same clothes, all the time," said his mother. "He has to wear a certain kind of shirt, certain kind of pants, certain socks. They have to be Champion socks, they can't be anything else."

It's all about routine, and if that routine is skewed, it's really hard for him, said his Mom.

"He'll adjust and he'll figure it out, but it kind of sets him back a little bit."

But Pam said he is getting better about these kind of things all the time - something that Pam thinks will help him as he gets older, if someday he wants to live on his own.

Otto takes special education courses at Ilwaco High School, where he is a senior this year, a year he says is "going good." He has what is called an IEP, an Individual Educational Program. He does the same work other students do, but it is modified for him. He also has classes just like everybody else, like a sign-making course which he particularly enjoys - he recently finished signs and cards for his business.

And though Otto has anxiety around people his age, his mom said that he loves school. She thinks it is because he is accepted there.

"He doesn't get teased or anything like that. He's genuine, so he's not a threat to anybody."

Otto said that he is looking forward to graduation, to "get out of high school and do something afterwards." That something, he said, will probably include college in Astoria. He would be interested in journalism perhaps, a profession he has a close interest in.

One of the homes he watches is that of Oregonian and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tom Holman. He met and cultivated a friendship with Holman that has led Otto to do his senior class project on his friend. He said the social aspects of that field is what interests him most.

"My friend at the Oregonian, he goes out and talks to people, and that's what got me into it," said Otto.

Even though Otto has a disability, he has proven to be the model of enjoying life while dealing with the cards he was dealt. He plans on continuing to ride his bike around town, "I like getting the exercise, and I like getting outside. I can't stand sitting inside for so long." He might even look for his lost basketball so he can shoot hoops in his driveway by the shore. But most of all he'll continue to be who he is.

"I'm just a nice guy," said Otto, "that's what people can think."

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