SALT LAKE CITY — Merlin Henry "Happy Hank" Hilton, a Utah radio pioneer who spent more than five decades building a strong legacy of love and passion for country music, passed away on Friday, Dec. 31, 2010, due to injuries sustained in a car crash. He was 85 years old.
Hilton was born Aug. 1, 1925, and married his childhood sweetheart Luana Winn in 1945 at the Salt Lake LDS Temple. They had three children.
After working at and building several local radio stations, Hilton took a chance on chasing his dream of owning a station and launched KSOP-AM in 1955. By following the simple mantra, "If you can hum it, whistle it, or sing it — play it, otherwise forget it," Hilton helped KSOP become one of the leading broadcast outlets in Utah.
He was a larger than life presence who "will be missed," said Debbie Turpin, KSOP program director.
"He used to always come in my office and say, 'Why are you playing this? You can't hum, whistle or sing it,"' she recalled with a hearty laugh. "'They're going to push the button!'" Meaning tune away from the station.
Hilton wanted the listener to enjoy every moment of tuning into his station, Turpin said.
On Dec. 10, 1964, Hilton made radio history when KSOP-FM became the world's first full-time FM Stereo country music radio station. His decision may seem visionary today, but was roundly criticized by many of his peers at the time, Turpin said.
"People literally told him he was crazy," she said. "That FM was never going to catch on. He was wasting his time, wasting his money (and) wasting his energy because FM was a fluke."
He proved them all wrong, she said proudly. "He was dead right!" she said.
In addition to radio, he was also a successful concert promoter, bringing legends such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, The Oak Ridge Boys, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Chris LeDoux and Garth Brooks to local venues.
In 2003, Hilton was inducted into the Utah Broadcaster's Hall of Fame.
Turpin said Hilton did everything he possibly could to ensure the success of his venture, working in various capacities over his long career. Even in retirement, he was a regular visitor to the station.
"He loved the business, he couldn't stay away from it," she said. "He was here all the time … still so passionate about radio, music and the business."
A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he served as a bishop and served a public affairs mission with his wife in the Southwest Area.
Funeral services will be held Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011, at 2 p.m. at the Cameo Park Ward, 8909 S. 1700 East in Sandy, with visitation from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Interment will follow at the Murray City Cemetery.