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Nov 28, 2012 | Carol E. Barnwell

60 Years of Amazing Grace



[Diolog MagazineBeverly Hilburn was reared in Jacksonville, just 30 miles from Tyler, where she has touched many through her music, as a teacher and at worship. She has played the organ and piano at St. John’s Episcopal Church since 1952—that’s a lot of hymns! Hilburn, 84, has been making music since she was a child, encouraged by her parents. As an adult, she taught music and choir in the East Texas public school system.


“I was 11 when my sister and I had our first piano lesson,” she remembered. “We’d bang out all the church songs we could remember without knowing what we were doing, and my mother thought we ought to learn how to play.”


Those piano lessons paid off. When Hilburn attended Wiley College, she was able to teach piano each afternoon to pay her tuition—$25 a quarter. 


“We were very, very poor and we didn’t even have that,” she said. Hilburn studied, taught and then practiced each day to graduate magna cum laude. She later received a master’s in music from Southern Methodist University. 


“I married in 1950 to a handsome young man who came to Wylie. All the men had came back from service and [they] filled the campus. The girls were lookin’ and runnin’!” Hilburn laughed. 


When she and her husband moved to Tyler two years later, the Rev. John D. Epps, Sr. invited the young family to move into half of a duplex on the grounds of St. John’s. Epps, who served as vicar of St. John’s for 20 years, was a friend of Hilburn’s family and she remembered attending “bible camp” at St. John’s during her summer vacations.


Raised a Methodist, Hilburn joined the Episcopal Church shortly after moving to Tyler. “They asked me if I could play the organ and I said yes. We had a big old pipe organ then,” she said. 


Following college Hilburn had a long and esteemed career teaching both music and choir. She began as an itinerant music teacher in the Bullard community and taught first through twelfth grade in five schools before moving on to schools in Tyler. “It was an experience out of this world,” she said. “I did not know anything when I started—not even where to order music!” she laughed. 


She taught during integration, helping to usher in a new era in the public schools. “It was unfortunate that in the school where I taught, we had the rich white kids and the poorest black kids instead of the black kids from my old neighborhood. Their parents went to college and were involved in PTA and with their children,” she said of the extra stress that arose from the economic diversity in the school where she taught.  


But she knew music would help the transition. “I didn’t find it too difficult because children love music,” she said. “I had to change the way I taught. White boys in the 7th–9th grade, their voices do not change like black boys. Those sweet little boys were still singing alto. Black kids were singing tenor and bass by the 8th grade,” she explained. “The white kids wanted to sing country songs so we did all kinds of music. I introduced them to the music of the African-American people. They got to love it and loved to sing it.“ 


“Beverly has provided inspiration through music and modeled dedication and commitment,” said the Rev. M. L. Agnew, vicar of St. John’s. “Thanks be to God for Beverly who simply lives into the biblical invitation, ‘Here, I am use me.’”