JUST like her father before her, Hilary Fortnam, the daughter of Thomas the Tank Engine creator Rev Wilbert Awdry, dedicated her life to inspiring others through her faith, creativity and courage.
The lay minister, who succumbed to cancer on Monday, will be remembered by her family, friends and the parishioners who listened to her preaching as a passionate person and caring parent who left a lasting mark on the lives of many, young and old.
Hilary, 67, died at her Highworth home after battling with the illness for a decade. She believed she would receive the all-clear five years ago but discovered that the tumour in her abdomen had spread to her spine.
The tenacious woman never allowed her failing health to keep her away from her duties at Highworth’s St Michael and All Angels Church, spreading the word of God, or defending the legacy of her father – which lives on in a display of Thomas the Tank Engine memorabilia in her hallway.
Growing up in a house full of stories and trains, not to mention a huge railway layout in the attic, Hilary developed an affinity with words that manifested itself later in life in her sermons.
As a child, she and her siblings Christopher and Veronica acted as their father’s tough editors, not afraid to tell him to return to his desk and start again when he tried new material for his Railways Series of bookse.
Her husband of 47 years, Alf, remembered his wife’s last months, which she spent rediscovering her love of painting and keeping busy at church despite of her deteriorating health.
He said: “She was losing strength and energy. She was in pain. It is only last week that the doctor said ‘I think she is slipping away’.
“She died at home and all her children, her sister and brother were able to see her the weekend before.
“She was a lovely mother and cared very much for her three children. She was very fortunate to have had two more grandchildren in the last two years. We have six now. That was a source of great pride to her. She loved me for who I was.
“She was creative and inspiring in her own right.”
The couple met in 1963 when Hilary was 17. She, Christopher and Veronica needed a car to drive to Cornwall for a holiday. Alf volunteered his ‘wheels’ and the rest is history.
They married three years later and had three children, Sara, 44, Simon, 42, and Rachel, 38.
It was only in 1986 that, as she put it, she felt God tapping her on the shoulder and her Christian faith and upbringing took on a deeper meaning for her.
The homemaker began her lay minister training in 1987. Despite a few turbulent years, during which her mother Margaret died and she took care of her ageing father, she succeeded in completing her course and was licensed in 1990.
She became one of a handful of progressive women who would open the way for many more to join the clergy.
Alf, 71, who worked in the food industry, said: “She was very determined. Her passion really was for church. She was raised in the church as her father was a parish priest.
“She has been part of a journey to improve how lay ministers are seen in the church and has done a lot for women. It was quite unusual for a woman to be a lay reader, as it was called then. It was more male-orientated. That was an achievement.”
Hilary’s life will be celebrated at a funeral service at St Michael and All Angels on Monday at 11.30am.