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Remembering Charles Hilty

Our own talented small town newspaper editor who saw the world, yet returned here to retire

Charles Hilty on the far left in a diplomatic meeting with the president of Egypt on the far right.

One of Bluffton’s thousand points of light dimmed this week.

Charles Hilty, a Bluffton favorite son, who died of the Covid-19, held that now-extinguished glow. His obituary is at the bottom of this story.

An earlier generation of residents appreciated him as our own talented small town newspaper editor making his an important voice in our village.

In 1967, he left us to eventually edit the St. Louis Post Dispatch. And, although a Republican, he claimed that had Richard Nixon’s enemy list expanded from 8 to 9, he might have been on the list. We’ll never know, but it makes a great Charles Hilty story.

After the Post-Dispatch era he joined the H.W. Bush administration as the Number 2 man in the United States Department of Agriculture.

Pretty impressive for a guy who wasn’t a Future Farmer of America while attending Bluffton High School. Add to that, we recall this comment from the late Dr. Howard Raid, who often spoke highly of him: “Charles Hilty never sat on a tractor in his life.” Never mind.

To hear him tell it, his birth was an American political omen.

“I was born 15 minutes before the 1934 mid-term polls opened,” he once said. “My birth marked the very bottom of the Great Depression for the Republican Party.”

Adding that when born there were only 88 Republicans among the 432 members of Congress (48 states in 1934), representing the largest-ever congressional majority for the Democrats in U.S. history.

When his father went to vote later in the day he announced that Bluffton has one more Republican.

And, after leaving Bluffton for a half century, he returned to live out his final days. However, his Virginia vanity license plate reading “45817” hinted to many of us that he never really left town.

Meanwhile, a bumper stick on his Mercury read: “Bail out Studebaker.” You may interpret it any way you wish.

At his best, Charles could entertain a group with the most peculiar Bluffton stories involving the usual cast of suspects, long gone but never forgotten. Stories ranged from Andrew Hauenstein, Civil War veteran; Bob Lewis, long-time Bluffton barber; Eugene Benroth, man-about-town; funeral directors, mayors, police chiefs, Pirate athletes to our usual Main Street one-of-a-kinds.

Stories shared made this village such an interesting place.

An example: A story told to me by my father was that a small, mysterious business was opened in that room (reference to the rear of 101 N. Main St.) by a guy from out of town not long before the Dillinger gang came to town…and the little business was closed and the mysterious man went away almost immediately after the bank robbery.

“This was told to John Bauman and me by my Dad one Sunday night in 1948 when he was driving us back from Cincinnati after taking John and me to a Reds doubleheader. My Dad and my Uncle George Kempf were both on the jury in 1934 that convicted Pierpont and other Dillinger gang members of the murder of Allen County Sheriff Jess Sarber.

Before we forget, Charles was Bluffton High School’s first-ever student to receive an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. And, he turned it down.

As an editor on a slow summer non-news week, he published a 7-page newspaper (figure this one out for yourself).

Writing about the 1965 Bluffton tornado, experiencing it firsthand, his description of that event follows, written on a manual typewriter under the pressure of a deadline:

What is a tornado? A tornado, says the encyclopedia, is an atmospheric disturbance caused by an upward current in the warm air. As the current rises a rotary movement is caused by the inrush of cold air from surrounding areas. The velocity of the whirling movements reaches 400 to 500 miles per hour.

But a tornado is more than this. It lives and breathes and talks and has character.

A tornado is a thin old man crying thick tears and saying, “Why can’t I die now?”

A tornado is a barefoot little girl clad in a ripped dress, mud spattered from ankle to eyebrow, whimpering in a hospital corridor.

It is a steer, bawling discordantly in the middle of what was a normal country road two minutes ago.

It is straw with the strength of steel, and steel with the strength of straw.

A tornado is preachers being nurses, nurses being doctors, doctors being preachers, all with the help of suddenly-kind men who are none of these things.

It is an imp, which destroys the church and spares the nearby junkyard…an imp, which blows away a fireplace, but leaves the woodpile nearly stacked.

A tornado is peace and quiet, coming with the speed and power and clamor of a thousand freight rains.

A tornado is forever.

This same small town editor took extra time to describe a rural orchard fire. This account resulted in words from the orchard owner much more heated that the flames in the actual blaze.

The news account, written with accuracy, brevity and clarity, took a simple police report about the fifth time a fire occurred in rural Bluffton over a span of 10 springs.

Starting the story this way: The annual Basinger trash fire was held at 4:40 p.m. Friday in the family orchard west of Bluffton on Lugabill road. The party, according to an established tradition, was not announced in advance, and the guests were summoned by the sounding of the Bluffton fire siren.

Several paragraphs then described the event in similar tone.

Finishing the story this way: Bluffton firemen noted that the orchard is now considerly small than it was when the first trash fire was held there in 1953, and said it is possible that this traditional fire cannot be continued very many more times.

This same small town editor reporting a Bluffton HS basketball game wrote that one Pirate “shot like a broken machine gun.” The player left the team following the release of that week’s copy of the Bluffton News.

And, this is the same small town editor, who in 1989 sat with American diplomats in the office of Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt. Four days earlier he was part of a Codel to Jordan and met King Hussein, also in a private session.

Charles was the staff organizer of the visit, responsible for selecting and arranging for ceremonial gifts. The gifts were limited 50-copy printings of a book on the history of aviation, bound in fabric from the original Wright brother’s plane.

We mustn’t forget a rumor that our man later worked for a secret un-named government agency. After returning home from one of his frequent trips to foreign shores we shared with him details of this rumor. He replied with a signature Chuck Hilty sarcastic, “Ha, ha,” and that was the end of that. He never denied it.

During another of many conversations about the unusual, generally controversial and one-of-a-kind persons who called Bluffton home, Mr. Hilty and this writer jokingly compiled a list of the 50 most interesting people who ever lived here.

To be certain, Charles, you are now on that list.

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Charles Hilty was retired U.S. assistant secretary of agriculture

Bluffton native was former Bluffton News editor, active in Bluffton and Washington, D.C., organizations

Bluffton native Charles R. Hilty, 85, died on May 30, 2020, of complications of COVID-19. He had a career as a newspaper editor and as a senior government administrator in both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

He was born Nov. 6, 1934, in Bluffton, Ohio, to Charles and Della (Kempf) Hilty. A 1952 Bluffton High School graduate, he attended Ohio Wesyleyan University and graduated from Bowling Green State University in 1960. From 1956 to 1967 he was associate editor and then editor of the Bluffton News, working with Milton Edwards and Eugene Benroth. During this era, the News won 15 state and six national honors.

Hilty served in the Ohio National Guard from 1960 to 1966. In 1967, he and his wife Carole K. Dirks Hilty, moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where he became the editor of the Bloomington Pantagraph. Then from 1973 to 1978 he was night editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In 1978, he became chief of staff for U.S. Congressman Ed Madigan. From 1984 to 1991, he served as minority staff director for the House Committee on Agriculture.

After President George H.W. Bush appointed Madigan as Secretary of Agriculture in 1991, Hilty was appointed Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Administration and served as such for the balance of Bush’s term. One of his roles in that capacity was to be the chief financial officer of the second largest department of the federal government.

He had served as president of the Bluffton Public Library Board and the Northwest Ohio Newspaper Association, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, the Historical Society of the District of Columbia and the governing body of the Foundry United Methodist Church, and board chair of the Arneson Institute of Practical Politics at Ohio Wesleyan University.

He was 50-plus year member of the Bluffton Lodge 432, F & A.M. where he had served as a lodge officer.

He is survived by a cousin, Sue Groves of Lima; brother-in-law Marvin J. Dirks, Jr., and sister-in-law Ruthann Cochran Dirks, and brother-in-law Stanley J. Dirks, and by nieces: Rachel Dirks, Danielle Crisman, Erin Mathes and Emily Garvie, and their children.

Contributions in his memory may be made to Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C., or to Bluffton University, for the Carole K. Hilty Scholarship Fund.

Charles Hilty with the president of Egypt

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