Remembering Mrs. Hilton, former Mann teacher

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

Dunnigan Hilton first saw Cheri Delahoussaye working at a West Side restaurant back in 1971.

The stunning young woman was about two years younger than the 21-year-old Hilton. He was captivated by her — so much so that he kept coming back to the Chicken Unlimited Restaurant.

"I went in there for lunch, and I saw this beautiful young lady, and every day I would want to go and have lunch," Hilton recalled. "My boss would ask, 'Why do you keep wanting to go over there?' And I said, you see that lady over there? That's going to be my wife. And he said, 'Are you serious?' And I said that's going to be my wife."

Hilton was serious. After a lengthy courtship, the two married in January 1975, but Hilton had to woo her. She didn't like him at first, he recalled. Cheri was cultured while Hilton was a "finger-popping" hipster. The couple would have four children, sons Christon, Brandon, Anton and Evan. The Hiltons were together for more than 40 years, moving to Oak Park shortly after their marriage. Cheri Hilton taught at Mann School for 20 years and was among the first black teachers hired. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2007 while still teaching and soon retired.

Cheri Hilton, 60, died on July 1 after her long battle with cancer. Her death devastated family, friends, her colleagues at D97 and former students, said Hilton, sitting in the dining room of their Scoville Avenue home.

She was a dedicated teacher — education was her calling from childhood, Hilton recalled.

Even after her diagnosis, she continued to tutor students. The family's summer vacations, which were an annual excursion, were scheduled around her tutoring.

"Wherever we went, we waited until she got through with tutoring," said Hilton. "That's how strong this thing was, her love and passion for her job. My life and the kid's lives were centered around her goal, which was OK because we did things as a family."

Mrs. Hilton engaged her students and empowered them in their learning, her husband said. Halloween was her favorite time of year. Hilton has photos of his wife dressed up as a hip-hop rapper and as a military soldier decked out in fatigues. She loved to take photos and have them taken of her. She kept all of her students' drawings and notes to her. She also kept every family picture and keepsake, including locks of her sons' hair.

She was something of a historian, and she loved old movies, black-and-white ones in particular. Frank Sinatra was her favorite entertainer.

"Blue eyes," Hilton said with a smile. "She and her mother would drive down the highway listening to Frank Sinatra. They would go and get all those old movies and they're up all night — popcorn and hotdogs — on these girls' nights out."

Cheri Hilton was born on May 22, 1953 in Chicago to parents Wilbert and Doris. She was the middle child of three, older brother Dell and younger sister Paris. A graduate of Von Steuben High School, she later earned her bachelor's degree from National Louis University and a master's in education from Loyola.

Her teaching career began at Bethel Lutheran School on the West Side in 1978. After 10 years there, she worked part-time at Lincoln School in Oak Park and was hired full-time at Mann in 1988, the school's first black teacher, her husband recalled.

She taught first grade and also mentored other teachers, some of whom were her former students. Sarah Milstein, a former student from 1993, credits Mrs. Hilton as an inspiration in her social services career.

"Much of what I do now working in a social service setting is directly related to the way I was raised by my family and the early formative years of my schooling here at Mann. Mrs. Hilton was one of those standout teachers, a professional who showed compassion and understanding, someone I could emulate," Milstein, 26, recalled.

"Mrs. Hilton was my favorite teacher. She always bent to our level to give a hug, to share a story, to explain something. She was incredibly patient. She believed in each of us before we even began to believe in ourselves. She inspired us to be thinkers, to be creative, to love learning."

She stayed at Mann until the time of her illness, when she suffered a stroke. Even through radiation and chemo treatments, she remained active until her final years. Her brother died in 2012. Both parents died within the last decade. Her four sons are adults now, some married with kids of their own.

On that Monday morning in July, Hilton held his wife one last time.

"You couldn't have imagined a storybook ending because six months before that, I told her, 'You will never ever see the inside of an emergency room and we will take care of you, and I will be with you until your last breath," said Hilton, who called his wife a friend, counselor, and partner.

"I kissed her and she looked at me in the eyes and I said it's OK. She took three deep breaths and she was empty. Very peacefully she closed her eyes and God made it as good as it can get. You can't imagine the hurt and pain I experienced from that. But I witnessed God coming to get somebody he loved."


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Another Former Mann Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: October 25th, 2013 12:57 PM

All three of my kids went to Mann. None had Mrs. Hilton, but we knew her well. Everybody who had her adored her. But what most impressed me about her was her willingness to take on the kids - particularly little boys - that had been deemed "challenging" or "difficult." She seemed to be able to reach out to them and nurture them. Such a calming force! She will be missed.

Patrice Roche from Oak Park  

Posted: October 25th, 2013 8:01 AM

Cheri's personality perfectly fit her name -- she was a dear person beloved by all the students and parents at Mann School. She will be greatly missed by the OP community. Our condolences to the Hilton family.

Former Student EV  

Posted: October 25th, 2013 12:06 AM

I was one of Mrs. Hilton's 1st graders, and am now working toward a bachelors in Elementary Education. Mrs. Hilton genuinely cared for each and every one of her students and taught us all to feel good about ourselves in a healthy and realistic way. She always had time for all of her students, even when things in her classroom were very busy. She is one of my biggest inspirations for becoming a teacher and finding joy in every moment of teaching. May she rest in peace.

former Mann parent  

Posted: October 24th, 2013 10:50 PM

Mrs. Hilton was the the first grade teacher at Mann for both of my sons (for both of them their first year in public school). We couldn't have hoped for a more warm, loving, welcoming, and nurturing teacher. She was truly exceptional.

DH from Oak Park  

Posted: October 24th, 2013 6:29 PM

Mrs. Hilton was a true gem at Mann School. She was my son's 1st grade teacher and we will never forget how loving and caring she was. She is already missed very much.

A former student  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 9:26 PM

Mrs. Hilton was my first teacher at Mann school, and she inspired me on a level few other teachers ever did (and I'm in college now). She has always held a special place in my heart, and I am greatly saddened to learn of her passing. She was an amazingly caring woman. I am so lucky to have able to have been one of her students.

A loving student  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 8:20 PM

I was in the school when she had an attack. I was only in Kindergarten but I will always remember how scary it was. She taught at Mann for a year after and then retired. My sister had her, and told me how amazing of a teacher and human she was. She will be missed.

Nancy McGinnis from Forest Park  

Posted: October 23rd, 2013 10:52 AM

I learned of Mrs. Hilton's death through this collumn. She was my daughter's first grade teacher, and she was compassionate and caring. Her classroom was a warm, friendly environment that encouraged laughter, engagement, and curiosity. We have lost a role model.

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