By Terry Dean
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."