We spend hours at homecomings, reminiscing about bygone days.
There were mutterings of how time flies at Howard Payne University’s annual gathering on October 1.
The class of 1971, headed by Darrell Miles, wanted to honor HPU athletes, including basketball stars Russell Berry and Ray Hildebrand. (Paula Berry accompanied her husband Russell.)
These were mostly 70-somethings. There were many guffaws heard, including from Ray Hildebrand, about how “four years were crammed into five or six or even more.”
Anyway, Ray and Paula, friends from college years some 60 years ago, were in the audience, he from Kansas City and she from Abilene.
The room was electric, with many conversations about how Ray had written “Hey, Paula” in the summer of 1962, how it had zoomed to number one in America by 1963, and how Ray and Jill Jackson Landon had sung in major cities around the world. They were known as “America’s sweethearts,” although they never dated. After all, Ray claims to have written the song for his basketball buddy, Russell Berry, who was deeply in love with Paula. Some now would think the lyrics to be shallow and smarmy. Its lyrics, though, are instructional. Does it really matter whether or not Russell asked Ray to write a song for his true love?
For most folks in the room, head hair had turned gray or turned loose. Some had new body parts to keep them “vertical and ventilating,” Ray being one. He was moving about on a new knee, and fairly new teeth. He let everyone know within hearing distance that he’ll blow out 81st birthday candles in November.
Paula, however, was the picture of graciousness for which she was always known, warming the room with her smile and beauty, and poise that others would do well to copy. Though she was the honoree of the song, it was another classmate, Jill Jackson Landon, who sang it with Ray.
There were comments that surely a half-century had not passed since they flung graduation caps skyward. “Look at us as God does,” one said, pointing to His view of a thousand years as being but a day. “So to Him, maybe we’ve lived only an eye’s blink or so.”
It was the first time in years that Ray and Paula had seen each other. Paula, husband Russell and Ray had much to talk about.
Though they never had eyes for each other, Ray’s and Paula’s eyes sparkled with contentment, the kind that merits “well done” commendation when earthly work is done.
Hours later, Ray returned to Kansas City, and the Berrys to Abilene …
Paula, never given to complaining, exhausted most of her strength and resolve to attend. She endured Multiple Sclerosis for some 33 years, yet persevered to be a grand wife, mother, grandmother and teacher.
Turns out that the luncheon was her final outing. A few days later, she was hospitalized with double pneumonia. She died on Oct. 18.
At her memorial service, some 500 folks assembled at Pioneer Drive Baptist Church in the aura of her smile to celebrate a life admired by so many including many second-graders she had taught in Abilene schools for 37 years …
Like her life, the service was one of victory and dignity.
The short service she requested began and ended with “Hey, Paula.”
Russell, her husband of 58 years, children Kristen and Jeff and five grandchildren, greeted folks as they arrived. Some “fore and aft” chit-chat included jovial memories of how the song came about …
I asked Russell about the summer of ‘62, when Ray, scrambling in summer school to qualify for 1963 graduation, wrote the song.
At the time, Russell was on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico, on the grimy task of getting top dollar summer employment.
“We had no phones, so maybe Ray dreamed it,” Russell said of his basketball teammate who lived under the gymnasium bleachers when he wrote the song….
Unknown to many is that Ray has gone on to write more than 400 songs, with a life committed to Christian service underscored by his long association with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He’s up for nomination to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame next year.
Ray continues to be Ray. A few days after homecoming, he and singing buddy Paul Lamb were chowing down at a great barbecue place. Ray, able to put away only half of his food, walked across the room to fetch a take-home box.
A few minutes later, the manager approached his table, saying, “One of the ladies seated beside the take-home boxes said that you touched her cheek,” tapping his own cheek bone a couple of times for emphasis …
“I have no memory of touching her cheek,” Ray gushed. “However, I have senility on my side. If I touched her cheek, I apologize. It will never knowingly happen again.” He learned the hard way that in today’s culture, there’s considerable risk in glancing at anyone, anywhere, at any time.
If, as fellow college classmate Mamie McCullough maintains, heaven has a glass bottom, Paula smiled all the way to the next cloud, with heavenly laughter abounding about how Ray loves everybody! Paula’s life profoundly influenced many; so does Ray’s. Such friends are not counted on one hand, but on one heart …
Dr. Newbury, a longtime university president, writes and speaks regularly. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call: 817-447-3872. Twitter: @donnewbury Facebook: Don Newbury