This story was originally published on Monday, October 27, 2008 on another blog I wrote for awhile. I’m re-posting it on “WTF” for my granddaughter, who just learned that I did, indeed, know Tony Hillerman. She had just read one of his books, “Dance Hall of the Dead,” in school, and said something to the effect that “…you probably don’t know who he is.” Well, I did….
Tony Hillerman died last Sunday. He was 83. He died from what was reported as pulmonary failure. The lungs fill with fluid and you stop breathing, but it’s all related to congestive heart failure. Tony had survived two heart attacks and surgeries for prostate and bladder cancer. In his last years he was losing his eyesight, hearing, and had rheumatoid arthritis so advanced that it made it very difficult for him to continue pounding on his keyboard, but he did. I think I’ve read most every book he wrote, and have recommended him to countless others.But what makes Tony Hillerman special to me, and why I am, maybe, more affected by his death, is I had the pleasure of taking classes from him at the University of New Mexico. He was an integral part of the Journalism Department when I attended undergraduate classes there in the early 1980s. I had him for several core classes. He was a past executive editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican and started his journalistic career as a reporter and editor for the Borger News-Herald in Borger, Texas. He also worked for the Morning Press-Constitution in Lawton, Oklahoma, and related a lot of stories about his days with United Press International in Oklahoma City. Tony later became head of the Journalism Department after I had graduated.
One class I had with him, on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 10:00, was one geared towards editorial and column writing. Professor Hillerman would have us write short pieces every week about any subject, which he would then review, grade, and pass around for all the students to read if he thought they were good enough to share. Only one of my submissions was copied for the class that semester, as I remember. Each week, on Friday, after passing out the work, he would take us, individually, out in the hallway, and give us feedback on our effort for the week.
One spring day on my way to school, I drove by this rather rotund lady bending over pulling weeds out of her flower garden, with, as I put it in the later piece, “Her posterior pointing heavenward and casting a shadow the length of the lawn.” It was a column about the subtle signs of spring, and I was rather proud of it.
Tony had, of course, read all my work. I know he did because I’ve still got his copious notes in red pencil all over the now yellowed typed copies. You paid attention to his critique because he was a published author, a mystery writer. He would later be President of the Mystery Writers of American, and winner of their Grand Master Award. He would also win the Golden Spur Award from Western Writers of America, among others.
So that Friday, after all the stories had been graded and returned, and the reading for the period passed out, Professor Hillerman called me out to the hallway about half-way through the session. He said that this was the best thing he had read of all my work and he emphasized that I should stick with humor writing. He went on to say that good humor writers are hard to find but usually an easier road to success, and that I could be “The next Mark Twain.” Oh yes, he said it, and for years I wanted to believe that he thought I was good enough to be the next Mark Twain. He didn’t say Royko, or Rooney, he said Twain. Of course, I think we all know what he probably meant, in context. I would settle for being the next Jean Shepherd, Robert Fulghum, Patrick McManus, or Tom Bodett, those being some of my personal favorites.
Speaking of favorites, one of my favorite Hillerman novels is one of the few that does not take place on the Navajo Reservation, “A Fly on the Wall.” In this book, the lead character is newspaper reporter, John Cotton, who stumbles onto a story of government corruption after the mysterious death of a friend and fellow reporter. We end up in New Mexico, though, in the end, fly-fishing on the Brazos River, where John Cotton is almost murdered. It was one of Hillerman’s earlier books, and we never got another book with John Cotton as a character. It didn’t get good reviews, but, I still count it as one of my favorites.
We did get several novels with two of his more famous characters, Lt. Joe Leaphorn, and Jim Chee. Professor Hillerman told us during one class session of how he had to buy back those characters so he could use them again. He had made the mistake of selling full rights to a studio for a movie that never materialized. He said all he could think of at the time was how excited he was that they were going to make a movie out of his book, how he was about to become rich, and he trusted his agent. The latter mistake he didn’t make again. After a few years of nothing from the studio, he decided to write another book surrounding his characters, and that is when he found out that he no longer held the rights to them, even though the studio had no intention of going forward with the movie. So for a price that Tony Hillerman indicated was a “bunch of money”, and a hard lesson, he bought his own characters back so he could include them in future books.
Four of the Navajo mysteries did make it to film. The first, “The Dark Wind”, which starred Lou Diamond Phillips, was supposed to be a theatrical release in 1991. However it was never shown in theatres and went directly to video. I remember there was a lot of controversy during the filming in New Mexico centered on the use, or lack of use, of native actors in major roles. In 2002, PBS’s Mystery, aired “Skinwalkers”, and “Coyote Waits” in 2003. “A Thief of Time” was the last film made of Hillerman’s work and aired in 2004.
Tony Hillerman was a decorated war hero too. He was a member of the 103rd Infantry Division that sailed from New York in convoy four months after D-Day on Oct 6, 1944. On October 20th they entered the port of Marseilles, in the south of France. Known as the Cactus Men, they were the first Allied troops to enter the port following the German withdrawal. The Germans had defended it strongly following D-Day in June.
The 103rd committed into it’s first action on Nov. 11, 1944 near St. Die. From there they began a six-month campaign, covering 500 miles up the eastern side of France, spending Christmas and New Year’s in foxholes, and finally making contact with the 5th Army in May of 1945 in Austria. It was during this campaign, at Lorraine-Alsace, that Professor Hillerman was severely wounded having both of his legs shattered. He returned to Oklahoma with a Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. He always walked a bit labored, although few of us knew why.
So another in a line of people that have had an impact on my life is gone. He leaves the world better for having been in it, and a legacy of over 20 books and numerous citations to his credit. He was a success. He was acclaimed. I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to know him.
I have to admit I haven’t worked very hard to attain that expectation of being the next Mark Twain, but I haven’t given up yet.