Remembering Leon HilyerPublished 11:00pm Wednesday, February 5, 2014
While many of you were caught up in the excitement of the snow and ice storm that covered Pike County last week, the City of Troy lost one of its most beloved citizens, Leon Hilyer. No greater man has ever walked the streets of Troy than Leon Hilyer said former Mayor Jimmy Lunsford. He was the great example for all of us in the way we should live our lives. Coach Hilyer as most of us called him died last week in a Birmingham Hospital after a short illness. He was 86.
Those of us whose lives he touched while we were growing up in Troy knew him as our teacher, coach and good friend. He was the perfect role model for so many young men. When he and his wonderful wife Mary moved in Troy in 1958 to teach at then Troy High School, that great bond between those two teachers and students began. They were admired and respected by everyone. In our minds, they were the perfect teachers, the perfect couple and the best role models young people in Troy could have. Coach Hilyer was an outstanding coach and math teacher, and Mary was excellent an English and journalism teacher. William Davis, who was a close friend to the Hilyers, probably described them best when he said they were two people who made everybody that they taught think they were their favorite student. They just made every student feel special.
I first met Coach Hilyer when he coached our Little League tournament team. I was just 12 but know then he was a special person. He later coached our Babe Ruth tournament team. I remember how he would open the old Troy High gym in the summers and taught us how to play basketball. So we all got to know him well as youngsters. He was our hero! We thought he hung the moon, and still do. I can remember so many times sitting in the stands in the old gym eating a big dill pickle in a Coca-Cola cup watching my favorite player Sherrill Crowe play for Coach Hilyer’s Trojan team. In the 7th grade, he let me be one of the varsity managers. I was thrilled to mop the floors before every game and get to go with the team on all the road trips.
All of his teams at old Troy High School and later Charles Henderson High were very competitive, but his best team was the 1959-60 team that went 24-8 and played in the state tournament in Tuscaloosa. It was Troy’s first ever state tournament team. It was fun to watch that team led by guards Ronald Giddens and Freddy Howard, forwards William Davis and Herbie Huner and 6’1” center Jimmy Rose. Larry and Harry Ray were the first players off the bench. They ran the old Auburn shuffles offense as well as any high school in the state. Hilyer had some huge wins in his career, but his most satisfying victory had to be when his team beat #1 Eufaula led by James Booth 58-56 in the old gym that year. It was a great experience to sit by him on the bench that year. His demeanor never changed whether he won or lost a game. Sometimes the officiating, especially on the road, would frustrate him, but I never heard him use profanity. The worst words out of his mouth were “for crying out loud, I’ll swear, auh shucks.” That was Leon Hilyer. He had a pure heart and was a very moral man.
Hilyer coached the Trojans from 1958-1963, retiring after six years as a teacher and coach in the Troy City system to become a banker for the then First Farmers Merchants National Bank in Troy, later Regions Bank. He was president of the bank for several years until his retirement. Mary, of course, continued to teach at CHHS and, later, eleven years at Troy University. He was that same great man as a banker that he was as a teacher. He touched a lot of lives. He was the same man every day, said Jack Rainey, who worked with him at Regions Bank for years. Everybody loved him. He also served his Lord in several capacities as a strong layman in the First Methodist Church. He taught Sunday School just as he coached. Mary died three years ago, and Coach never really got over it. They had been married for over 55 years and loved each other very much. Everybody envied their strong relationship and how dignified they carried themselves.
Many of his former players attended the funeral on Friday, some driving 10 hours to get there. Coach had so many friends that loved him and admired him. Larry Ray, who drove up from Naples, Florida, was a basketball player and track star under Hilyer and said he will always be in our hearts and minds. I’m just glad the good Lord led him in our direction. Coach, with his great humility, would not have wanted us to make a fuss over him, but how can you not? He deserved every nice thing that has been said. We had Leon and Mary in our lives for over 55 years, and I thank the lord for them both. We’re all better people for knowing them.
I could go on and on about my dear friend and not be able to express everything that his life has meant to me as a youngster growing up in need of a role model and as a grown man needing someone to set a good example for me.
So long, our good friend. You’ll always be in our hearts.