Roger Barbee: Paw-Paw and more

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 11, 2022

Over his almost 80 years of life, James Hilton  served many roles. Younger than James and a hopeful football player at A.L. Brown High School, I stood in awe of his gridiron powers.

He and Jimmy and all those players were the ideal for all of us younger boys. Their school mascot was the Wonders and that name described them well because they were wonders. But because James dated and eventually married one of my older sisters, Linda, I was privileged to watch him grow into much more than the fellow who hit a Wyncoff player so hard that his hit not only caused the runner to lose the ball, but he also lost his helmet.

One James Hilton hit produced three flying objects.

James always was present but never in the way. His strength was quiet because he was secure in his abilities and he had no need to be loud and obstructive. His still water ran very deep, and James did not tell us what he could do but in his quiet manner showed us how to do.

In the late 1970s when he was renovating a house that he and my sister had purchased, I was helping him. A small upstairs bathroom needed a floor covering, so James studied the room. He then measured for the tub, the sink and its two pipes, and the toilet. He then took a piece of linoleum into the hallway, turned it upside down and marked it for cutting. After that he turned it right-side up and placed it in the bathroom where it fit snugly around all the pipes, tub and toilet. He said to himself as he walked out of the room “That oughta work.”

Waste was the enemy of James. About 50 years ago when Linda and he lived in Tarboro, my family visited them. In his shop I noticed several boxes of broom handles, but none had the broom still attached. I remember that the bright colors of each had been worn off by use, and I asked James about them. “Oh,” he said, “the plant (where he then worked) was going to throw them away, so I brought ’em home. Somebody might need ’em.”

In “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare writes,

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts.”

James did have many parts or roles during his time on our stage. All the people gathered in West Point Baptist this past Saturday knew him in some of the same roles and in different ones. Some that he “played” like the revered football player we all shared. Some roles like Paw-Paw are cherished by six grandchildren. Some roles were that of older brother, or father, or husband. But all the gathered in his family church knew James as a kind man who never refused a request.

In his poem “To An Athlete Dying Young,” A. E. Housman writes,

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

Fortunately for us, James Hilton lived a long life unlike the young man in Housman’s poem, and when we finally had to bring him home we are better for having known, loved, and shared James’ life.

Roger Barbee lives in Mooresville. Contact him at