Most fans know Hilarie Burton from One Tree Hill, the popular television show about high school teen angst that ran from 2003 to 2012. She was practically a teenager herself, just 20 years old, when she snagged the role of cheerleader Peyton Sawyer, and it was art imitating life, as Burton actually was a cheerleader at Park View High School in her suburban Washington, D.C., home of Sterling, Virginia — a stone’s throw from Dulles International Airport.
Much has changed since that big break for the girl who had always been determined to act (her first role was in a stage production of The Sound of Music in third grade), and nowadays Burton is both actress and producer, as well as a wife and mother of two young children. The vivacious 36-year-old beauty now lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, in a place that reminds her of her Virginia roots in Loudoun County.
“We chose living in the Hudson Valley because it reminded me of Loudoun County in the ’80s and ’90s,” Burton reveals. “There is a deep appreciation for agriculture, a rural lifestyle, and family-oriented activities. I’ve tried to mirror as much of my life up here as closely to what I remember from my childhood growing up in Virginia.” Back then, she remembers, this area where she was born and raised made sure to teach children and teens how to make the world a better place. “I got a lot of great training growing up in Loudoun County, because it was really a service-minded education system. We did canned food drives for everything.”
The proximity of the Hudson Valley to New York City is another bonus for Burton. “I love New York City. It never ceases to have magic for me. I’m so drawn to the opportunity that New York City symbolizes. You can be anything in New York. It was the place I dreamed about as a kid growing up in Virginia.” And while both Burton and Morgan spend a lot of time on the road — she to various spots for recurring performances in television shows like White Collar, Extant, and Lethal Weapon, as well as the 2018 Lifetime TV movie, The Christmas Contract (which she also co-produced), and he to Georgia for The Walking Dead and elsewhere for feature films like Rampage — the couple is dedicated to making their family life on their farm with son Gus, 8, and daughter George Virginia, 1, a priority.
“I was always a little mother,” Burton says with a laugh. “When I was a kid, I loved gardening, knitting, and making bread. You know, ‘grandma’ things. So now that I’ve actually aged into that, and it’s appropriate, I feel good in my own skin these days. I like how being a mother, being a spouse, and being a farmer informs all of my other jobs. It really changes how I look at things.”
Burton is also figuring out how to bring her work right to her home, with an initiative she’s instigated with fellow actor Mary Stuart Masterson, who also lives in the Hudson Valley. “We are working on producing more television films for Lifetime,” Burton explains, to build on the success of The Christmas Contract, which was a sort of One Tree Hill reunion of the show’s stars in an all-new story. “And the Hudson Valley has a wonderful tax incentive up here for productions — a 40 percent credit — so she and I are in recruiting mode. We’re working on bringing our own productions here and also telling everyone, ‘Come shoot your movie here. We’ll help you!’”
Juggling a family and a career in entertainment production might seem enough to keep anyone busy, but Burton has plenty more energy to pack much more into her life and community. When she heard the shocking news that Park View High School, her hometown alma mater in Loudoun County, Virginia was not able to field a varsity football team for the 2018 season, she jumped into action.
“That was a great big alarm for all of the Park View High School alumni, for those of us lucky enough to go there years ago,” Burton explains. Burton saw an opportunity that came from a great love of the school as a student. “I was student body president. I was thespian president. I was on the forensics team. If there was a club, I joined it. I loved school.”
The Loudoun County of today, however, is not the Loudoun County of her youth. “Sterling was definitely a farming community when I was growing up,” she remembers. “It was kind of confusing to witness the old farmhouses and old barns being torn down while all these new things were popping up in the area like shopping centers. We found that while Loudoun County has expanded in such a wonderful way, the development has been tough on some.”
Park View is the only Title 1 high school in the county (the wealthiest county in the United States), meaning the high school currently has a large population of low-income students who need supplemental funds to meet their educational goals. The way that translates to the football team is, for example, the kids who want to play cannot afford the required gear, insurance, or after-practice transportation home. Or they have to go to part-time jobs after school.
When Burton realized that the challenge of providing after-school activities was not from a lack of interest, but financial wherewithal, she became determined to help change things at the school. Together with other alumni, she started a nonprofit called Project Patriot (project-patriot.org), where people can see what the school needs, what the project is doing, and how they can contribute. “We are saying, ‘How can we, who have benefited from growing up in this area, give back to the community and make sure kids at our alma mater are receiving the same benefits we did?’”
The project has already seen much success. “People started volunteering, and I just started plugging them into spots where their expertise made sense. Kathleen Ore Disanto is one of the few females who was ever been a Park View Patriot football player. She is now a lawyer and graciously did all of our paperwork. Ashley Dawson Hoyt, a cheerleader with me in the late ’90s, is our treasurer and volunteered to help set up our bank accounts. Tony Canonico, who was class of ’98, has a great wealth of knowledge when it comes to sports and the local sports community. He also has done production out in Los Angeles and developed our website. What’s been fun for me about making this happen is getting in touch with our friends, old teachers, and old administrators, and figuring it out.”
As for the kids, they seem just as determined. One young woman particularly stuck out in Burton’s mind. “I had met the young woman who was crowned homecoming queen on my first trip to Park View. She came right up to me and said, ‘This is what we need. How can we make this work?’ She was very together, and I was impressed with her.”
The fact that this enthusiasm and initiative occurs amid a challenging environment with limited resources enheartens Burton. “It’s great to see these kids who may not have the fanciest cars. They may not have the school with all the money, the booster clubs, and the stadium that brings in tens of thousands of dollars a weekend, but they are working so hard. It’s an underdog story about kids who don’t have it easy, so they have to fight ten times harder. When they accomplish things, their victory is so much sweeter.”
She’s even hoping to make a documentary about the problem of this D.C.-area high school that also explores the national problem of public high schools where kids do not have the advantages that different, yet nearby, public schools enjoy. “Right now, a documentary is being shopped because there is interest.”
Meanwhile, back on the ground level, she’s promised any student at the school that if they are interested in attending football camp in the spring of 2019, she will personally pay for them to go.
Perhaps it’s this “get-it-done” attitude that led her to so much success in Hollywood. It’s certainly made a huge difference in just a few months at her old stomping grounds. “What I love most about Hilarie is her authenticity,” Park View Principal Kirk Dolson enthuses. “Knowing where she’s been and the huge amount of success she’s experienced since she graduated from Park View, one might think it would take time for her to warm up to our current school. But no way! From the moment she walked in the door, she immediately connected with students, staff, and our administrative team. I feel like Park View gained a great friend through this reconnection.”
Reconnecting with her roots in Northern Virginia also meant introducing her son Gus to her favorite place to have a meal when she’s back home. “Without fail, I have gone to Buffalo Wing Factory in Ashburn every single time I’ve ever come home,” Burton chuckles. Because that’s where all my friends and I worked in high school. It’s where my friends still work, except now they’re owners and managers and in charge. I love that my son loves going over there to play with the arcade games. When I got my first big job at MTV [as a host of Total Request Live in 2000], I got my last paycheck in the mail from Baba at Buffalo Wing Factory with a note that said, ‘All the wings are so proud of you.’ It was so nice. I still have it!”