Ron Hamilton wrote hundreds of hymns and worship songs, including “Rejoice in the Lord,” “Here Am I, Lord,” and “I Saw Jesus in You.” He was also a composer and published 20 Christmas cantatas.
But he is known most for his sillier work: 41 kids albums, written by and starring him as the one-eyed “Patch the Pirate.” Alongside his wife as “Sissy the Seagull” and their kids playing assorted sea creatures and crew, he went on adventures and sang lessons about life, the Bible, and God.
“Not a lot of Christian pirates around,” Hamilton told a church in 2014. “I’m about the only one. It’s a lot of fun.”
Hamilton lost his left eye to cancer when he was 26. He started wearing an eye patch, and as he recounted many times over the years, children began to recognize him as a pirate, pointing him out to their parents, asking if they could be pirates too, and greeting him in his home church with a hearty “Ahoy!”
The Hamiltons put out the first Patch the Pirate album in 1981, a second in 1982, and released them annually after that. More than two million copies have been sold, and the songs are broadcast on more than 450 radio stations, making Patch the Pirate one of the largest children’s outreach programs on the radio.
In 2018, as dementia was rapidly shrinking his world, Hamilton’s wife, Shelly Garlock Hamilton, tried to encourage him by reminding him of that success. “Do you realize how many people you have blessed with your music, Ron?” she said.
Hamilton replied: “I’d like to think God did it.”
He died on Wednesday, surrounded by family, at the age of 72.
Tributes and remembrances poured in on social media. One young woman in Minnesota called Hamilton her “cassette-tape dad.”
“I remember time and time again, being curled up around the radio listening to the stories with such anticipation and singing along with the songs we learned to love so much,” she wrote. “Patch, you were a rock to a wondering and searching soul.”
A man in Oklahoma recalled a similar experience.
“I remember sitting on the couch as a young child, listening to all the adventures, over and over again, with my imagination running wide open!” he wrote. “I cherish those memories oh so much, and wouldn’t trade them for the world. Ron, thank you for the work you so willingly did for the Lord.”
Hamilton was born in South Bend, Indiana, on November 9, 1950. His father, Melvin, was an electrician. His mother, Leota Marie, was a homemaker with a passion for music and a commitment that her three children would be musically trained. She hired a piano teacher to teach them trio arrangements and personally directed them singing gospel in three-part harmony whenever they were in the car.
The family belonged to an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, and Hamilton kneeled beside his bed as a child to confess that God sent his only Son to die on the cross for his sins. He accepted Jesus into his heart and trusted him for salvation.
“Salvation and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ are the means by which one can live a life in heaven forever,” his family wrote in the death notice posted by a Greenville, South Carolina, funeral home. “This is the gospel in full, the gospel to which Ron dedicated his life.”
Hamilton was also an adventurer as a young man and spent one summer of his teenage years riding his bicycle across the United States. He spent another cycling around the Great Lakes.
At 18, he went to Bob Jones University to study music. He auditioned for the vesper choir, led by renowned fundamentalist Baptist composer Frank Garlock, and was accepted. That same year, Hamilton spied Garlock’s daughter Shelly running across campus in her cheerleading uniform and was smitten. She saw him in her dad’s choir and felt the same.
The two dated for six years and got married in 1975. Hamilton went to work writing music for his father-in-law’s new production company, Majesty Music. At the same time he completed a master’s degree at Bob Jones, writing a trilogy of songs about the Cross: “It Is Finished,” “Come to the Cross,” and “The Blood of Jesus.”
In 1978, Hamilton had trouble seeing out of his left eye. He was sent to doctors in Atlanta who told him they could see a spot. It could be cancer, but they would have to operate to know for sure.
“It was kind of suspenseful,” Hamilton said.
They were, in fact, really concerned. There was a chance, according to the doctors, that the cancer was inoperable.
“We didn’t know if it had gone to his brain,” Shelly Hamilton said. “If it had gone to his brain, the doctors couldn’t have done anything for him.”
The couple went to Atlanta for an operation and were relieved to learn the cancer had not spread beyond his eye. However, the doctors couldn’t save his eye and had to remove it. They gave him an eye patch, sparking the reaction that inspired a new line of children’s music and Hamilton’s greatest ministry.
“Many people would see the loss of my eye and the need for wearing a patch as a great trial,” Hamilton said. “But I see it as one of the greatest blessings of my life. It reminds me that God teaches us the greatest lessons in the deepest valleys.”
In 1981, Majesty Music put out Sing Along with Patch the Pirate. It had 16 disconnected songs about Jonah, David, Daniel, and Jesus, as well as “I Love America,” and one about how “nobody likes a person who will grumble and complain.”
The follow-up album was written to tell a story, sending Patch the Pirate on an adventure full of opportunities to spread the gospel.
“It’s yo, heave ho, a’sailing we go,” Hamilton sang on one track, “telling the story of Jesus.”
After that, Patch the Pirate went on a new adventure with new music, every year. Sometimes the crew retold a biblical story, as with 1996’s Giant Killer. But more often they sailed on simple adventures, encountering situations they could learn from, new friends to tell about Jesus, and reminders to praise God.
“We’re making car rides more enjoyable, more bearable,” Shelly Hamilton said. “But when you’re actually teaching them someone loves them and there’s a Savior, it’s really making a difference.”
Majesty Music also established Patch the Pirate clubs for churches. By the mid-1990s, there were more than 900 clubs across the United States, attended by about 16,000 kids. Hamilton remained connected to Bob Jones throughout his life and was well regarded by Independent Fundamentalist Baptists. His music reached far beyond that network, though, and was widely used by evangelicals across denominations.
Hamilton continued to write adult music as well. Most of his songs were big, majestic pieces, best sung by choir and a full congregation backed by a church orchestra.
Hamilton’s most beloved hymn was perhaps “Rejoice in the Lord,” a song about trusting God:
Now I can see testing comes from above;
God strengthens His children and purges in love.
My Father knows best, and I trust in His care;
Through purging more fruit I will bear.
In 2013, the Hamiltons suffered the tragedy of the death of their eldest son by suicide. Jonathan, 34, had long struggled with clinical depression and schizophrenia.
“Losing our son has been the hardest thing we’ve had to deal with,” Shelly Hamilton said. “But we know he’s well and he’s with God, so that’s a comfort that we’ll see him again in heaven.”
Two years later, Hamilton was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, which impacts the part of the brain that controls language and behavior. His ministry ended in 2017 after wrote his last song for children. It was about the silliness of selfishness, called “It’s All About Me.”
Majesty Music was turned over to a third generation of the family and is now run by Megan Hamilton Morgan—known on some Patch the Pirate albums as “Princess Pirate”—and her husband, Adam, who is also a state representative in South Carolina. Megan and Adam Morgan have written the most recent Patch the Pirate albums, Mystery Island and A Whale of a Tale, a pirate-themed retelling of the Jonah story.
Majesty Music has also made Patch the Pirate more available, releasing a smartphone app, Patch Plus, with all 42 years of Patch the Pirate music included.
In July 2022, Hamilton, his wife, and his daughter Alyssa moved to Navarre, Florida, to live with Shelly’s sister Gina and brother-in-law David Greene, so they could all care for and support Hamilton in his final days, allowing him to live at home.
One of his final conversations was with his friend Tom Williams, an evangelist, who prayed a nautical prayer for the that man so many knew as Patch the Pirate.
“Dear Lord,” Williams said, “this old ship is about ready to dock.”
Hamilton is survived by his wife, Shelly, and their children Tara, Alyssa, Megan, and Jason. A funeral is being planned at Bob Jones University.