Thursday, March 5, 2009


Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ) - Friday, May 25, 2007

Author Tony Hillerman hasn't always written Navajo mysteries. This unique mystery genre may have made him famous, plus a millionaire, but during his life, which began on May 25, 1925, in Oklahoma, he has also been an injured combat soldier, journalist, professor and journalism department chairman.

His first two books did not deal with Navajos. The Great Taos Bank Robbery and Fly on the Wall started his author's career. It was Dance Hall of the Dead, his third book, that launched him as a Navajo mystery writer. It was published in 1973.

If you had to sum Tony Hillerman up in one word, it would be humble. As a journalism student at the University of New Mexico, I remember sitting in Hillerman's office while he pulled out first editions of Dance Hall of the Dead. He asked a lowly journalism student to read the first page. After finishing, Hillerman asked an opinion: "First paragraph reads like a newspaper lead," was the answer.

Hillerman, who was having his students study the "new journalists" of the time, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson (before the S), so that we expanded our horizons -- something Hillerman was big about -- grabbed the book. He looked at it, studied it, and instead of arrogantly saying the opinion was wrong, said, "I'll never do that again." He hasn't!

This sums up Tony Hillerman. He was a journalist, professor and writer who cared about people. Still does. His favorite class he taught, long before it was in vogue, was Ethics of Journalism.

He would lecture about what was right about journalists, as a public trust, doing the right things decades before it became a business mantra. " Kelleher , you have to give back those record albums," he'd admonish me in front of the entire class. His point was that the record companies were "buying" me if I kept the albums I was given. He ranted similarly to the sports guys in class that the school newspaper we worked on, the second-largest daily in New Mexico at the time (with a larger circulation than the evening daily), should pay for sports event tickets rather than getting freebies.

To this day, many media types ignore Hillerman's code of ethics and take the freebies. So much for public trust!

This class revealed his nature. Hillerman is a perfectionist at his craft. He would sway, distractingly so, forward and back on a podium. You could see he was not comfortable standing as the leader of this group. He was much more at home at his office in front of a typewriter, or gathering facts, the hallmark of a great journalist.

He wasn't concerned about the best, either. I was second or third tier in my class, behind some excellent writers who went on to national prominence. Yet Hillerman put me in charge of the senior class project, a newspaper for the New Mexico Commission on Aging, to build my self-confidence. He knew I was weak on feature writing, so he had me write a story on Max Roybal, a well-known New Mexico santero (someone who carves wood in religious figures).

Hillerman attracted the best, too. After he left the department chairmanship, which he held from 1966 to the end of the 1974 school year, according to the University of New Mexico's Communications and Marketing Department, he handed it over to a journalist from Hawaii, Jim Crow. Both men became my mentors and father figures during college. They attracted Pulitzer Prize-winner John Hightower from CBS. During the time Hillerman was at UNM its journalism department became famous. A product of this school, Pete Chronis, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize as part of the Denver Post.

The most important lesson Hillerman imparted to my class? Stay current; he was writing books, teaching classes, managing six children, yet he knew what was coming off the wire at the time, all the current television shows and just current events in general. So, stay current!

Richard C. Kelleher is a public relations specialist in northeast Phoenix.