In Memoriam: Grandpa Hylton

Memorial Day will be one of many days for my family to remember the man who was my grandfather, C. Lee Hylton, in the years to come. He was a veteran of WWII who joined the Navy near the end of the war when he was just 16. In my grandfather's own words, he was a "hillbilly boy" who had "no whiskers yet, just a wild ambition with a lack of wisdom".

He passed away recently just after Memorial Day on May 30, 2017.

One of his many grandchildren and great grandchildren, I am the granddaughter he called "Tank" when she was an infant because of her chubbiness, and dubbed "Hildy Bee" in her teenage and adult years. I can still hear the way he used to say, "Well, Hildy Bee..." in his gentle, joking way. I can hear his joyful, subtle laugh, a laugh I heard often when I took my own children to visit him. It is my great pleasure and privilege to write about the man who was my Grandfather Hylton.

Grandpa traveled the Pacific with the Navy, but most of his life was spent in Idaho's small towns and wilderness areas.

He was working as a shepherd on West Mountain when he met my grandmother, Alverna, a book keeper in a small store in nearby Council, Idaho where his older sister was a clerk. They married in 1948. Little did Grandma know then that her husband would soon become a different sort of shepherd and that his life's work was to have a far greater impact even than service to his country.

His vocation came to him quite unexpectedly, and it began with a conviction that struck his heart like lightning.

Papa, as many in our family called him, labored in an auto body shop repairing the damaged steel frames of wrecked cars after he and Nana married. He was a drinker in those first years of marriage and child rearing -  not a habitual one, but a man who drank to excess when, as my Grandma put it, "the wrong friend came around".

One of those errant friends worked with my grandfather. As they were leaving the shop one day, he turned to Papa and said out of the blue, "You know, if we don't change our ways, we're both going to hell."

That very next Sunday, Grandpa took his family to church. When the altar call came for people to confess their sins and offer their hearts to Christ, my grandmother handed their baby son to Papa and hurried to the altar to kneel. He was mad that Nana beat him to the punch. The following Sunday it was Grandpa's turn to give his heart to the Lord. That was the year 1952.

Reverend C. Lee Hylton
Two years later they were headed to Los Angeles Bible School. Grandpa and Grandma had saved their money, so that Papa could train to become a pastor.

Upon their return to Idaho, they were given several small churches one after another, called "missionary churches", as their little ones grew up. Preaching and extravagant living rarely go together; it always seems incongruous when they do. Papa did not make much from doing the work of God, so he painted houses during the week, no doubt mulling over the Word of God and his sermons for the coming Sunday with each rhythmic brushstroke.

Though my grandfather dedicated years of his life to shepherding churches in Idaho, what really ignited him was traveling as an evangelist, going to other congregations to preach each night of the week in order to revive the faith of communities. One of his revivals lasted five weeks! Papa even brought his family here to the towns around Phoenix in his evangelical mission.

A favorite sermon to deliver, one that he preached several times over the years according to my dad, was born of his experiences as a shepherd on West Mountain. My grandfather encountered many a mountain stream while herding sheep. Those tributaries in Idaho are beautiful, pouring forth cold, clear water from the heights. But they sometimes become clogged with the debris of nature, mud and stones and fallen pine branches. When Papa saw such diminished watercourses, he knelt to scoop out the detritus from their chilly, trickling water until they rushed again through the lush mountain meadows as they were meant to do. This was an allegory for what we must routinely do in our relationship with our Maker, Papa asserted: we must remove the litter to receive the rush of grace and love that God so freely and mercifully gives each day.

I didn't get to spend much of my childhood with my grandparents. They were in Idaho, and we were in Tennessee. But I knew my grandpa as a man short of stature but full of fire when he delivered a sermon, a man who always wore weathered cowboy boots - something I loved about him. And he was a man who had a strong voice for hymns as well as preaching, one who was never ashamed to sing praises to the Lord as his wife skillfully played the organ. One of his favorite hymns was "Down From His Glory".

When my Aunt Cheryl told me how Grandpa used to love to sing that song, and I looked it up, I could hear my Grandpa's fine voice and see his face tilted just so as he sang it in the small New Plymouth, Idaho church where I heard him preach as a teenager.

What is Grandpa's legacy? Every one of his three sons has served as a pastor and each of his two daughters married one. They hold fast to their faith, regularly work to share it with others using their unique talents and have passed it on to their own children. His grandchildren know how their Papa praised and loved the One who came down from His glory to win all our souls, the One Who once spoke to and changed Grandpa's heart through the blunt words of a friend.

That man's name is Jesus, and He has now another stalwart servant in His loving arms for all eternity.


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