History of Highland Hills
It was on a Saturday night, January 31, 1953, that Mr. and Mrs. Willingham, Mr. and Mrs. Bass, Mr. and Mrs. Mallary, and Dr. and Mrs. Hatcher met for supper at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Register. These young couples felt that their neighborhoods on the east side of the river had all of the amenities envied by local residents: magnificent trees, hidden gardens, serene parks, wonderful homes and enough nearby commerce to satisfy most needs. But one necessity was lacking: A church. They wanted their community to have the spiritual enrichment of a church.
They agreed to host an organizational meeting on February 16, 1953, at Baconsfield Club House, which previously stood on the site of Baconsfield Park, the present day location of the Baconsfield Kroger and office complex. Frank Willingham took on the first of what would be many leadership roles in the life of this church when he was elected general chairman. They faced three main issues in starting the church—denomination, name, and location.
They determined from a survey of the residents of Shirley Hills and North Highland that the church would be Baptist. They decided to name the church Highland Hills, a combination of the two neighborhoods it would serve. Until property could be obtained, the church met at the Little Theater Building on Riverside Drive. The children met at Miss Duffy’s playhouse, which served as Louise Duffy Bass’s preschool, on Briarcliff Road.
Dr. Lewis Batts preached to 179 members representing 90 families on charter Sunday, April 12, 1953. A week later, the first deacons and trustees were elected. On May 3, 1953, Luke Smith was the guest speaker, and like most guests to Highland hills, he ended up staying. Luke Smith was called as pastor July 12 of that year.
Less than a month later, the church purchased 27.3 acres from the estate of Senator A. O. Bacon for $31, 500. The church made many strides in its first year. The first baptism was held at Ingleside Baptist Church. The first brotherhood meeting occurred at the S&S Cafeteria. The first church picnic and vesper service was held at Stone Creek Lodge. Ed Hutching became the first choir director, Mrs. Hill became the first pianist, and the choir held its first rehearsal at the Willingham’s home. The first edition of the church newsletter, The Informer, was published. The first WMU, Sunbeam, RA, and GA meetings were held. On July 12, Highland Hills had its first church services in the Baconsfield Clubhouse.
While plans for the four-phase construction of the church buildings were drawn up by Mr. Pauley of Atlanta, Highland Hills carried on. In 1954, Easter Sunrise service was held for the first time. The service took place on the Briarcliff property. The piano was in the back of a pickup truck, and only Mrs. Hill had a place to sit. The church began its legacy of an appreciation of natural beauty there among the briars, weeds, and brush.
The church broke ground on phase one in July 1954. The construction included the chapel, nursery, parlor, and several classrooms. The following month, the deacons voted to co-sponsor Boy Scout Troop No. 3, bringing about the building of the scout hut. A joint vacation Bible school was held in August with First Baptist Church. On September 24, the church had the foresight to have a cornerstone ceremony. Placed at the cornerstone were a picture of advisors, a scroll of charter members, a picture of the first board of deacons, a picture of the first trustees, a copy of the court approved church charter, a picture of the first pastor, a copy of the deed to property, and a copy of the agreement with the contractor for construction of the building. The chapel was completed in time to host its first service on May 8, 1955—Mother’s Day. On that day, the flowers for mother tradition began at Highland Hills.
The chapel brought on many more firsts in 1955. Elsie Jones and A. W. Wade were the first to be married in the chapel. The first GA coronation was held and the first training union was begun. Highland Hills was a thriving body of believers active in numerous ministries. To accommodate that growth, construction of phase two began with a ground breaking ceremony on November 3, 1957. The education building was completed less than a year later. That building housed the first family night supper on March 25, 1959.
Highland Hills experienced a major transition in May 1959 when Luke and Janie Smith left the church. Dr. Francis Robert Otto served as interim pastor until Dr. Maurice Trimmer was called to be the second pastor on January 1, 1960. Dr. Trimmer led the church during an exciting time of growth. During his tenure, the church held a note burning ceremony for phases one and two of construction, and on the same day broke ground on phase three—the marvelous sanctuary building. The steeple was put in place on January 20, 1967, and the first service was held on September 8, 1967.
Highland Hills showed signs of maturing by the time Dr. Trimmer retired in January 1971 after 11 years of service. James C. Bruner became the church’s third pastor in April of that year. The 1970s was a period of outreach. The Jim Dandies, a senior adult group, was formed in 1976. Sunday school classes at McAfee Towers began in 1977.
The decade of the 1980s brought further growth and expansion. Ground breaking on the family life building, phase four of construction, was held on September 24, 1981. It was dedicated in February 1983. There was much transition in the years that followed. Chuck Poole came as assistant pastor. Sandy Wilkerson left her post as youth minister and Keith Turner succeeded her. Chuck Poole left to become pastor of First Baptist Church, and Barry Ellis came to serve as assistant pastor. Gerald Carper accepted the position of organist as Marian Gordon retired from the position. Theses changes culminated in Dr. Brunner’s departure for a position with Mercer University in 1987. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy served as interim then full-time pastor until 1990. After an interim period under Dr. Walter Shurden, David J. Hailey was called as pastor in August 1990.
The 1990s was a decade of new directions for Highland Hills. The church went on a mission trip to Chicago, new hymnals were purchased and dedicated, the chapel was redecorated, and Cass DuCharme was brought on to replace Lyn Hicks, who stepped down as minister of music in May 1992.
It was also the period of the new dream in which the church made a concerted effort to reach out to the entire community. The Informer was renamed Family Matters, and the church adopted the slogan “A place for families to grow” and the motto “Sharing God’s love with all people.”
Dr. David Hailey resigned in July 1996 to become the pastor of Hays Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh, N. C. After a year of steady guidance form Dr. Scott Nash and Cass DuCharme, Dr. Jim Dant was called to be the pastor in May 1997.
The church moved in the direction of a more liturgical worship service, and Ruth DuCharme and Carol Brown were brought on staff to serve as minister to children and director of preschool ministries, respectively. The Fall Family Festival was expanded, and the church underwent a renovation and expansion of its existing Sunday school facilities.
In 2000, the church voted to change its bylaws so that all members over the age of 21 could be eligible to be elected deacon. That year, Mary Brown was the first woman to be elected to serve as a deacon. In 2002, the church ordained Ruth DuCharme into the Gospel ministry and sent a mission team to New York City.
Dr. Dant's last Sunday as pastor was in February 2012. Dr. Brett Younger served as Interim Pastor until October 2013, when Dr. Jake Hall was called as pastor.
From those first five couples to today, Highland Hills has benefited from steady leadership and a vision of reaching out to the community. The church has fulfilled one dream, embarked on another, and embraced the far-off dreams that have yet to come into focus. For half a century, Highland Hills has been rooted in God’s love and growing in God’s grace.