Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tony Hillerman would have been 84 today
Celebrating life of Navajo mysteries writer

Tony Hillerman would have been 84 today.

The author of Navajo mysteries died in Albuquerque this past Oct. 26 following years of ailments.

Hillerman achieved the dream of many. For nearly 50 years he was a published author and at the end of his life, one of New Mexico’s richest men.

I first met Hillerman in the fall of 1972. He was chair of University of New Mexico’s journalism department and I needed his permission to enter the department as my major. That’s how things worked in the second quarter of the 20th Century.

For three years I studied under him. One of my fondest memories is him trying to teach me how to write a feature story.

Hillerman’s catch-phrase was “stay current.” In this role, he had his students read Tom Wolfe’s “The New
Journalism.” We had to learn this style of journalism.

Sitting in his office, Hillerman was trying to illustrate how to write creatively in long hand, what my children called cursive. After several futile attempts, he grabbed a black typewriter that sat on a grey stand. He pulled it close to his desk and began typing, giving up on hand writing his ideas.

“You too?” was my astonished remark. I had only been in the journalism program for two years, but I discovered ideas flew so fast in my brain, I need the added speed of a typewriter not to let them escape.

In
2007 and 2008 I had the honor of commemorating Hillerman’s birth with stories in the Arizona Republic.

From a 2008 St. Patrick’s Day communiqué, Hillerman said, “Have a book idea in my head, but too pooped out to start it.” So a book died with Hillerman.

Hillerman was a perfectionist. He would bemoan the demise of newspapers if he was alive to see the death of journalism.

In his day – and as students this is how we conducted ourselves – you spread a long net of sources for stories. I knew everyone from the governor, mayor, down to junkies. You never knew where you’d need a source covering a story.

If you ran with a story plied by a public relations practitioner, or Lord forbid, you actually used a news release, you’d be fired on the spot. This was the terrain Hillerman plied his craft as editor of The Santa Fe New Mexican.

On the other hand, other reporters held you to a high ethical standard. Hillerman taught my ethics class. I had a story about a county manager destroying a county car while he was allegedly driving drunk. He was not cited, but I had people in the car confim he had about five drinks before the accident.

The county manager came to the newspaper’s office, had a talk with the owner of the paper. About 15 minutes later, the owner of the paper said he was pulling the story. Not even a mention of the accident in his paper.

Peer pressure dictated that I was required to quit. Today’s journalist… who knows how today’s journalist would handle it? They probably wouldn’t have heard about it because it didn’t originate in a press release. My stuff was packed and I was gone. Hillerman’s values were upheld at that moment.

Hillerman’s influence will be felt by many as we, his students, continue the values he instilled during our ethics and reporting classes with him.

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