Memories. Questions. Disbelief. My heart sank and my head started spinning as I read the three-word text my 16-year-old son sent from Ada High.

Garry Hill died.

He had to be the fittest 60-year-old I have ever known as he was always running or on a bicycle or walking. Garry (yes, rr) apparently had a heart attack last week, Wednesday, November 30, to be exact, while running at the Ada High School track. Those there that immediately came to his aid and those who came later were unable to revive him. As one Facebook nurse friend said, “That heart had a lot of miles on it.” Several pointed out that he passed doing what he loved at a place he loved. His “happy place.”

I am still not sure I believe it. I thought Garry Hill would live forever. In many ways he already had. In many ways he always will. It seems forever is how long Gary Hill has been around. An Ada icon of sorts.

You may have noticed him, but not known he was Garry Hill. Those of us who knew him, and his name will miss our encounters with him and so will those who noticed and knew him, but who had no idea his name was Garry Hill.

I wondered to myself earlier today if Garry knew my name. It doesn’t really matter and I know it didn’t matter to him. I can’t remember him ever calling me by my name or asking me my name. But, I know I always received a warm greeting and smile from him and a look on his face that seemed to say, “What are you doing here?”

And then we would talk like friends who have known each other a long time do. Catching up and reporting on those we both knew. In the end he would kind of cock his head sideways just a little, sorta purse his lips and nod his head two or three times. With that I knew the world was right.

Since I met him in junior high school I have seen Garry Hill everywhere as we grew up. On the bus, the cafeteria, in the stands, on the track, in the student center. Quietly sitting and minding his own business. And talking to anyone that spoke to him.

In later life I would see him around town. From grocery stores to riding his bike or running or walking around town. From the Ada Public Library to the ECU University Center. At Ada High and ECU basketball and football games. But, not until after halftime. He was at the dedication of the new police station last Tuesday night looking fit and well. He, of course, sought out and complimented the scouts for doing a great job raising the flag.

Garry made the local paper many times. In high school track results. And then as a bicycle racer. Later in the tennis results. And he achieved a few moments of fame as the inventor of the variable speed table tennis ball. I never did and never will understand how it worked. Somehow you turned a built-in dial and the ball would be more bouncy and faster. Turn it the other way and it slowed down.

And many, many times his name was in the local running results for races of all kinds. I am anxious to run into Harrel Harbin and find out for sure, but I bet Gary has ran in more Fireball Classics than just about anyone in the 49 years of the race. And I bet he has won his age group more times than anyone.

I understand ECU students are in shock. He was a campus fixture, sitting outside on a bench in the sun greeting everyone or inside watching the action on the pool and table tennis tables. What he really loved was tennis, and he was a frequent spectator and one-man cheering squad for the Tiger and Cougar netters. He was a loyal, knowledgeable and appreciative fan.

It is said that over time, it is hard to separate history from myth and memory, and that is true with a Garry Hill story. Not sure when or where I first heard it, or maybe I was there when it happened in high school over 40 years ago. So, I am not sure if it is a true story or a myth or a faded memory. But, if you knew Garry you will know it could be, and probably is, true.

It seems Garry was nearing turn three at the backstretch of an 800-yard race in high school. As he did, Coach Dorsey Reirdon could see him counting those ahead of him as they made the turn. He counted four ahead of him and relaxed. He had his trophy wrapped up. Coach Reirdon knew they only gave trophies to the first three and medals for the next two. And he knew Garry had more in him and could do better than fifth place. So, he screamed out from near the finish line at the top of his voice, “Garry Hill. They only give trophies to the top 3.”

Garry, almost effortlessly, passed two runners in the last 120 or so yards and finished third, according to legend. He had his trophy. That was back in the glory days of Ada High track, when they won by huge margins every meet, they were in. Garry was proud then and always to have been an Ada Cougar. I sort of think if the coach had told him he needed to be first for the team to win the meet he would have been first.

Garry lived his life like he ran that legendary race back in high school. He wasn’t out to impress anyone or make a scene or have more than he needed. He was happy to accomplish what he set out to do. And in life, he was happy to run miles and miles and miles at the pace he needed to go. No faster. No slower.

A lot of those miles on his heart were hard miles. But, he had what counted most. He was happy, and he probably had more “friends” that the rest of us put together. “Friends” because a lot of them probably didn’t know he was Garry Hill. But they knew him and his smile and kind words. 

Garry, as far as I know, never had much or needed or wanted much. He was always reserved and polite with a smile on his face and a friendly word for everyone.

Garry was Garry. Nothing more. Nothing less. No pretending. No big show.

Rest in peace, good friend. Your race is over.