Hobie Speights Huston grew up in a shotgun shack with newspapers used for both insulation and wallpaper in the tiny Alabama town of Panola, a name derived from a Native American term for cotton.
Her sharecropper family picked it and later unwound by listening to entertainer Minnie Pearl on the radio from the Grand Ole Opry.
Young Hobie Speights’ home was “a little shack with a peach tree in front,” said her daughter, Darlene Huston. “You had to pump your own water and they had an outhouse.”
Years later, while visiting Panola, her Chicago-raised children — to their chagrin — saw that country chickens do not arrive on the kitchen counter wrapped in plastic from the supermart, but have their necks wrung before getting plucked for dinner.
Young Hobie Speights Huston | Provided photo
Panola offered little opportunity for a smart high school graduate, so Hobie Speights headed north to Chicago to join her brothers, who had already left town.
Her sewing skill landed her work crafting ragtops for convertibles. Seeking a job with better pay and benefits, she applied at the old Western Electric plant in Cicero. She learned to solder so she could assemble phones.
When Western Electric moved jobs to St. Louis, she stuck it out with the company a few more years to sweeten her pension and Social Security. Mrs. Huston found an apartment in St. Louis, and she and her husband, Earlie H. Huston, visited back and forth until she returned to Chicago.
She then worked at the Helene Curtis factory at North and Kostner, and she dispensed food samples at Costco and smaller stores. She didn’t retire until she was in her 70s.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Huston volunteered for 30 years at First Grace Missionary Baptist Church, 4134 W. Grenshaw, where she handled paperwork and made sure bills were paid. “She was very generous in her giving, and generous in taking care of responsibilities,” said the pastor, Anthony Harris. A founding member, her name is on the church’s cornerstone.
“Her thing was, ‘Do your best, and don’t be idle,’ ” her daughter said.
Mrs. Huston, 83, who fought lung cancer and leukemia, died Friday in hospice care at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center.
Her husband died in 2012. Both from Panola, they reconnected after moving north to Chicago. He worked for R. Lavin & Son metals and Williamson Candy Co., the maker of Oh Henry! bars.
Hobie and Earlie Huston | Provided photo
After civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the Hustons watched from the third floor of their home at 14th and Pulaski as rioting engulfed Chicago’s West Side. “We could see the fires,” her daughter said.
“That was a scary time,” Darlene Huston said. “Walking outside the next day, it was a very surreal moment, really, to see the sight of the stores that you had gone to, burned down, nothing there.”
Growing up on a farm, Mrs. Huston learned how to “MacGyver” household materials to solve problems.
When Darlene was young, she had to portray a pilgrim in a school program. “My mother made me a black dress,” she said. “I had an apron, and she made, like, a little butter-churn out of a Clabber Girl baking-powder can. And she put a little stick in it that would go up and down.”
In the kitchen, as the saying goes, Mrs. Huston used “everything but the squeal.” She had learned to cook tripe on the farm, and her family liked it. However, she drew the line at using chicken feet for food.
Mrs. Huston loved anything made with sweet potatoes. She mixed lots of vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and lemon extract into her sweet-potato pie filling.
Hobie Speights Huston and her grandson, Terrence. | Provided photo.
She enjoyed teaching a few tricks to her grandson, Terrence, from her time on the North Sumter High School basketball team. She also liked feeding him her corn pone. “It’s like cornbread, but it’s a flapjack and she loved making that for him,” Darlene Huston said.
Mrs. Huston used her Kenmore sewing machine to turn out men’s suits and prom dresses.
When her husband bought a sporty 1970 red Chevy Impala, she had him teach her to drive.
Mrs. Huston also is survived by her son, Milton.
Visitation is from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Smith and Thomas Funeral Home, 5708 W. Madison. The wake is at 10 a.m. Friday at First Grace Missionary Baptist Church, 4134 W. Grenshaw. The funeral is to start at 11 a.m.
No day was all bad, Mrs. Huston believed, if it included a dish of strawberry ice cream.