Remembering Tillie Hedrick
In complex times like ours, we can’t make it through a day without the work of experts in a host of fields—car experts, computer experts, education experts, medical experts, spiritual experts—but in our specialized world, one area of expertise seems to be fading away. We don’t seem to have many experts in making life good. We lost another one Saturday night.
Tillie Hedrick, like her husband Joe before her, was an expert in making life exceptionally good.
“We had an idyllic childhood,” said Tillie’s daughter, Sara, and her two sisters, Kate and Molly, agreed. It was a childhood, they said, marked by freedom—freedom to move around, freedom to think and make their own decisions, freedom to fight their own battles. “We got in trouble and we were disciplined and Mom was the disciplinarian,” they said, but their young world was full of space to become. “She wasn’t a helicopter mom,” said Molly. She didn’t script their every moment. She told them to go play in the pasture.
And how was this idyllic childhood created for the six children of Joe and Tillie Hedrick? It was always Tillie’s plan to have six children and live in the country. It was Joe’s plan to move back to Wheelock—it good place to raise kids. But six? “It’s the perfect number,” said Tillie. But the fulfillment of the plan wasn’t all.
The raising of six children to become six successful adults—all with college degrees (Tillie was really proud of that)—rested not just with a plan but with two adults who had tremendous love and respect for each other, dedication to each other, and awe that they had found the best person in the world to be married to. Speaking of rarities . . . .
Tillie (Matilda) Hedrick was the daughter of Slovenian immigrants. Her mother had come to this country and married another Slovenian (Slovenia would become part of Yugoslavia), had a child, and become a widow—a stranger in a strange land. Then she responded to an ad in a Slovenian-language newspaper in Michigan. It advertised for a lady to come to Texas to marry a Slovenian who had come to Texas by way of Italy. She came (a mail-order bride of sorts), and married, and they had two children, both girls. The second they named Matilda.
Tillie grew up in Texas with a love for fun and longing for travel and adventure. An exceptionally bright girl, she graduated from Rice University and went to work for a company building a bombing range on Matagorda Island. Then her wanderlust and need to help defend her country took over. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (later the WACs) and, after basic training in Georgia, and service in the Pacific Northwest, went to North Africa in 1944 to help win World War II as Sergeant Matilda Kunover. After a short deployment in Oran, Algeria, she developed jaundice and recovered just in time to be transferred to Italy. In Naples, she headed a de-coding office and visited Rome shortly after its liberation. There, she walked through the streets singing “The Eyes of Texas are Upon You.” Those Romans probably sensed how lucky they were. When remembering her War days, Tillie always said that, actually, she had a very good time.
Back home, Tillie took a teaching job in Bay City, sharing a car with her sister and living in a kind of “teacher dormitory.” One day, Tillie’s sister, Mary, took the bus to Bay City and struck up a conversation with a rough neck and former Marine lieutenant (who had survived Iwo Jima). She took an instant liking to him. When they reached Bay City, she suggested they go have pie and coffee with her sister. They did. The next day, the Marine hiked into Bay City to see the sister again. Joe Hedrick and Tillie Kunover were married a few months later.
Joe’s passion, besides Tillie, was moving back home to Wheelock even though he didn’t have a job there. That sounded fine to Tillie. Place in the country, check. When they got there, the Franklin head coach offered Joe, a graduate of Tulsa University where he played football, a coaching position. He took it and was on the way to becoming a legendary Texas high school football coach. And they started a family when Kate was born in 1947—another local sports legend in the making.
Tillie spent the next several years raising children—reaching the magic number of 6 with Wade—and providing those idyllic childhoods. She didn’t go back to teaching until Wade went to school.
Tillie didn’t hover over her brood but she was very good at making fun. She took them on picnics to Red Hill and took them to their uncle Joe’s beach house near Surfside. Our dad, the girls said, didn’t like to leave home. His traveling days were over. But Tillie still loved to keep moving.
Molly, trying to find words to describe her mom and how they grew up, said Tillie had the amazing ability to make each of the six feel like he or she was the favorite—make each one feel special and unique. And that ability to love did not stop with her own. It extended to the rest of the family, and then to her sons and daughters-in-law. Said Kate, “She had a lot of fun with her kids, grandkids, and friends. She could spot when someone needed a little extra—especially one of the kids. And she would give it. She was a mother to all the sons and daughters-in-law.”
With all her kids in school, Tillie went back to teaching as a Franklin 3rd and 4th grade teacher for 20 years. She refused to teach Wade but she did teach at least one of her grandkids who called her “Mrs. Hedrick” like everyone else.
Her students liked her, said Molly, except when she got mad and turned her Rice ring around and bopped them on the head. Joe Hedrick was superintendent by then but she never interfered in district politics. She was a teacher; Joe was the super.
After retirement, Tillie became Carnegie Library’s volunteer librarian and did a lot to keep it going before it became the full service library it is today. She also worked tirelessly to support her church, St. Francis of Assisi, in its efforts to grow. Her suggestions paid off and grow it did. Throughout her long and very healthy life (she made staying healthy a priority and her kids model her in that regard), she was ever young—walking at a good pace and looking and sounding like 70 or less in her 90s. She was still lending a hand to the old folks (who were typically younger), and still living by herself, even though she had some help for 10 to 12 hours a week, ladies who loved her and looked forward to those hours as some of the best of their week.
And Tillie was still marveling that she had such a wonderful life—exactly what she wanted: living in the county with six kids (then 12 grandkids and 5 great grandkids) and enjoying life to the fullest. And saying how amazed she was that Joe Hedrick loved her. Joe wasn’t the only one.
Melissa Freeman / Robertson County News