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Hugh Tilson, Community Volunteer Who Helped Establish Local Relay for Life, Dies at 89

After 40 years of marriage, and decades serving as volunteers for the American Cancer Society, Hugh and Sue TIlson are pictured at the May 21 Relay for Life Survivor’s Dinner in Boone, during which a special award was established in their honor. Photo by Sherrie Norris

By Sherrie Norris

On June 21, just days after the 25th anniversary of Relay for Life in Watauga County — an event he helped establish and one that he dearly loved — Hugh Tilson of Boone passed away at the age of 89.

The dedicated community volunteer, truly with a servant’s heart, had experienced various health concerns in the recent past, but succumbed after suffering a stroke.

Tilson was well-known in the area, a highly respected gentleman who always put the needs of others before his own.

Perhaps he was best known for his efforts in assisting his wife, Sue Tilson, in organizing the Watauga Unit of the American Cancer Society in 1980.

That interest subsequently led to the couple introducing Relay for Life to the area several years later.

Just a week before his unexpected death, Relay for Life in Watauga County celebrated its 25th anniversary.

It was an event to which Tilson and his wife dedicated a large portion of their lives, as Sue chaired the event for many years and Hugh was always by her side along the way. He, along with Roachel Laney, was in charge of logistics for many years. As a cancer survivor himself, Tilson was a hardworking member of his family’s Relay for Life Team, Tilsons’ Tuminators.

At the recent Relay Survivors Dinner in May, Hugh and Sue were honored with an award established in their name for exemplary service to and support of the local Relay for Life.

Additionally, in the early days, Hugh gave of his time to the Reach to Recovery program of the American Cancer Society, helping other men navigate through their own cancer diagnoses and treatments.

Together, the Tilsons remained active in the ACS on various levels until recently.

Tilson is also remembered by his family and community for his positive outlook and for his ability to connect to people through his unique humor and playful spirit. They said he was forever curious about the people and events surrounding him. His caring nature, analytical mind and creative spirit readied him to solve problems and help others. 

According to his obituary, Tilson was in his mid-30s when he surprised friends and family by taking his young family to Kabul, Afghanistan, to work and travel. The opportunity to help the people of a Third World nation was his proudest professional achievement. His sons will forever remember the experience as one of their fathers lasting gifts to them.

“His respect and concern for others remained through his final days as he conveyed a positive spirit, expressed appreciation to his medical team and caregivers, worried his illness was an inconvenience to others, and conveyed his concern for the well-being of those around him,” they said.

As a young man, TIlson received a bachelor’s degree in vocational agricultural education, with a minor in agricultural engineering from NC State University and worked as a vocational agriculture teacher.

He later joined Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation, advancing to director of public relations.

In the mid-60s, he accepted a three-year assignment with Columbia University under a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he served as an educational advisor. Upon returning to the United States, Hugh joined Caldwell Community College in Lenoir where he directed health manpower education.

He later moved to Boone to launch a commercial and residential maintenance business, followed later by a maintenance position with Tar Heel Capital of Boone. He retired in 1995 and continued to reside in Boone.

Tilson is survived by his wife of 40 years, Suzanne (Sue) Tilson; brother Leonard Tilson of Winston-Salem; three sons and their spouses, Joe Tilson (Diane) of Boone, Larry Tilson (Joe) of Blowing Rock and Palm Beach Fla., and Jeff Tilson (Lisa) of Saint Augustine Fla.; Sues four children and their spouses, Michael Blackburn (Caroline) of Banner Elk, Cindy Gore (Bill) of Butler Tenn., David Blackburn of Austin Tex., and Rebecca Lapping (Steve) of Pinehurst; ten grandchildren and their spouses, Adam Tilson (Sarah), Ramsey Wilde (Brian), Haley Tilson, Sam Blackburn, Isaac Blackburn (Suzanne), Jennifer Brown (Johnny), Bert Gore (Heather), Kevin Lapping (Holli), Jeffrey Lapping, and Bryce Lapping; and eight great-grandchildren, Silas, Finley and Hollyn Wilde, Elliott Blackburn, Mack and Mason Brown, Braden Gore, and Piper Jo Lapping. 

A memorial service will be at noon on Monday, July 1, at Grace Lutheran Church at 115 East King Street, Boone. Visitation and a reception will follow the service at the church.

 In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to The Troutman Foundation at Grace Lutheran Church and the Watauga Chapter of the American Cancer Society.  
Online condolences may be shared with the Tilson family at www.austinandbarnesfuneralhome.com.

Austin & Barnes Funeral Home & Crematory is serving the Tilson family.