By TRAVIS M. WHITEHEAD
HARLINGEN — He liked to fly his plane as the sun rose, praying for the churches passing below.
He was an animal lover, an athlete, a motorcycle enthusiast and the pastor at Rio Hondo Baptist Church for 48 years.
Friends and family are remembering the Rev. Gene Horton, who died yesterday at age 84, as a dear friend and devoted preacher whose devotionals ran on local TV for almost 40 years.
“He was a very remarkable man,” said his son, David Horton.
His father, known as the Flying Pastor, had insisted he would continue to preach until the very last, and he kept that promise, having delivered his last sermon on Sunday. His death yesterday was unexpected.
“He went in to have some tests done on Monday,” Horton said. “The tests revealed he’d had a heart attack, and then there was pneumonia.”
Things continued to decline, but still no one expected death was so near. Not even the reverend.
“A couple came in from Fun N Sun and he wanted to pray for them,” said son-in-law Vance Greek, who ministered for many years with Horton.
They ministered together at Rio Hondo and more recently at Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Harlingen for the past 18 months.
Greek expressed admiration for his father-in-law.
“He wrote a book, he got his doctorate from Trinity Theological Seminary,” he said. “He was a very learned man, but he was a man of the people.”
Greek remembered an especially powerful moment in 1968 at his high school graduation. Horton addressed the graduating class and urged the students to “slay that Goliath.”
Soon after, tragedy struck when a close friend of Greek drowned. Several hundred kids were there and many became increasingly emotional. Basically, things were going from bad to worse by the minute.
“I want everyone over here,” said a 37-year-old Horton, gesturing toward the kids.
“Let’s kneel and pray,” he told them, and a peace settled over everyone, empowering them to survive the difficult moment.
Parishioners remembered a kind spirit who looked toward death with ease.
“He said, ‘Don’t fear for me, I’m going to be with the angels as soon as I’m out of this body,’” recalled Belle Buitron, 62.
“He said he was going to go directly up to Heaven to be with the angels,” she said.
She recalled the comfort he gave her when she experienced tremendous loss.
“I lost both my parents in 2011,” she said. “He was like a surrogate father to me. That’s what he meant to me.”
The Rev. Charlie Palmer, pastor at Treasure Hills Presbyterian Church, remembered a dedicated colleague and man of God.
“He indeed was a great man of faith,” Palmer said. “He seemed to have a way of bringing worship and music together to new heights.
“Matthew 25:23, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ seems appropriate because Brother Gene used his talents for God’s work.”
Rev. Bill Reagan, executive director of Loaves & Fishes in Harlingen, also remembered Horton yesterday.
“Brother Gene was a role model and a mentor to me. He was the Valley’s Billy Graham. I don’t know anyone who has shared the Gospel of Jesus with the kind of love Brother Gene showed throughout his ministry,” Reagan said.
“If ever we knew someone went to Heaven, it was Pastor Gene Horton.”
The Rev. Gene Horton is survived by two sons and a daughter and his wife Phynetta.