Bobby Lee Hilton, Galveston Island Treasure

This 82-year-old historian and Hotel Galvez ambassador never gives the same tour twice.

By Jeff Balke March 31, 2016 Published in the April 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Bobby Lee Hilton’s nametag reads “B.O.I.”—born on the island. A badge of honor among native Galvestonians, it takes on new layers of meaning in Hilton’s case: The tall, lithe 82-year-old is not only a guest ambassador for the Hotel Galvez, he’s its resident historian, a living repository of knowledge about the island, master storyteller, and—in himself—local attraction, providing tours of the hotel upon request.

Weaving the history of the hotel and the island—its gangsters, hurricanes, oil barons, pirates and ghosts—with his own life story, Hilton never gives the same tour twice. Which perhaps explains why, among our group of half a dozen trailing him through the hotel’s halls on a Friday morning, one woman is taking his tour for the third time. “This is you with my father,” she says, pulling up an image taken on another day, during another trek through the Galvez, before asking him to retell one of his stories.

Hilton launches into the tale of his first go-round as an employee of the hotel—all the way back in 1949, when he was a freshman in high school—pouring coffee and bussing tables. It was then that he wound up serving a cup of joe to General Dwight Eisenhower, in town for a speaking engagement.

I was shaking like a leaf on a tree. He just looked back and said, "Don’t be nervous, young man, you’re doing a fine job. Take your time." I cleaned that table and hurried across the dance floor, but someone had spilled grease, and I upended like someone snatched my feet out from under me. Two thousand people stood up and yelled, "Yay!"

Just two years old when his mother died, Hilton was raised by his older sister and grandmother. “I was so poor, the poor folks was talking about me,” he says. From early on, he aspired to beat poverty. “I wanted to be an insurance man, and if I wasn’t an insurance man, I wanted to be a doctor,” he says. “The insurance man had a three-piece suit and carried a briefcase. That’s all I wanted to do, was pack a briefcase and put a three-piece suit on.”

In the end, his first real opportunity came not with a suit but a football uniform: A star wide receiver at the island’s Central High School, Hilton landed a scholarship to TSU. From there, he went on to play quarterback for the Army Rangers in Alaska, eventually landing a job in sales for Schlitz Brewing Company in Milwaukee.

All my suits were real neat and clean, my shoes patent leather and shined, and I cut my hair close, no mustache. I was clean-cut, man. A big conference came up in Miami, and a company manager said, "Come up here on the stage." He said to the crowd, "This is how I want you to look."

On the spot, Hilton won the company’s Gulf Coast regional sales position. He took the next flight home, and worked in the beer business until 1993, when he was 59 years old. “I don’t hardly drink anything anymore,” he says with a laugh, “but I drank enough to float the Battleship Texas.”

It was then that Hilton rejoined the Galvez staff as lead waiter and bartender for special events, decades after his first stint working at the hotel. Before he knew it, he’d been in the position for nearly 20 years, all along, sharing his stories of life on the island with anyone who would listen. Then, in 2011, the Galvez added a Hall of History, and the hotel found itself in need of a tour guide. Management, of course, knew just the guy for the job.

“He knows hundreds of stories and they are all different,” says Melissa Hall, a fellow concierge at the Galvez. “And people come back over and over to hear them.” History comes alive when you talk to Hilton; the Maceos and the Moodys aren’t just names, they’re families he’s encountered.

Trying to separate fact from legend in his yarns is just part of the fun. 

The story goes that during World War II, some German officers took a U-Boat around our jetties and up in those rocks. They would go in Mr. [Sam] Maceo’s club and get stinking drunk, then get back in their boats and go back to the war. It’s a little far-fetched, but who knows?

Today Hilton shows no signs of slowing down, despite whispers of his retirement. “I don’t know where that’s coming from,” he says, addressing the rumors. “What am I going to do, sit under a tree, reminisce and deteriorate?” Hall wishes Hilton would write a book, to ensure his stories are passed to future generations, something Hilton says he’s considered.

For now, he remains energized by his job. A spring in his step, he walks the tour group into the ballroom and pauses. The Galvez, he assures us, is most certainly haunted.

When I was the bartender, I had my bar in the ballroom after a big wedding. And we set up for breakfast in the back, glasses and all on the table. Some guy was playing Ghostbusters with one of those sensors, saying, "If you are in here, do something." He cut off the lights, and all of a sudden, a glass flew off the table and hit the wall. Man, I hit the door. I didn’t waste no time.

Onward. As we pass walls filled with photos of war heroes, gamblers, celebrities and politicians, Hilton starts listing off the bigwigs who’ve visited the Galvez over the decades, including some members of the famous hotel family that shares his name. “Are y’all related, Bobby?” one of the guests asks. “Black sheep of the family,” Hilton responds, lightning-fast, before leading everyone back to the lobby, where the group stops to chat before dispersing. Hilton tells us he’ll lead at least one more tour today, for a group of first-graders.

On her way out, the woman on her third tour gives Hilton a big hug. “See you next time,” she says.

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