Thursday, March 5, 2009

Here's hoping Hillerman writes another book

Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ) - Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Author: Richard Kelleher , The Republic

Welcome to what hopefully will run a very long time, the annual Tony Hillerman birthday celebration. A belated one this year. Hillerman is a noted author who specializes in mysteries based on Navajo characters usually taking place on the Navajo and Hopi nations. Born May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Okla., he celebrated his 83 birthday this year.

He was also my journalism professor at the University of New Mexico.

Much of what I knew about Hillerman, how he would sway back and forth on a podium while teaching, preferring to be behind a typewriter, was covered in last year's Northeast Phoenix Republic column. Many people responded about what fans they are of Hillerman's.

Last year, following the 2006 release of Shape Shifters, he said he was done writing. A St. Patrick's Day communique from, as I still respectfully call him, Professor Hillerman, stated: "Have a book idea in my head but too pooped out to start it."

This is how Hillerman writes books. He thinks them through, goes on a trip to the Four Corners. Then he puts them to paper, then edits the heck out of them, and lets others edit them before they are complete.

So I'd be willing to say there is yet another book coming from Hillerman. Remember, you heard it here first.

In 1996, Hillerman was listed as New Mexico's 22nd-richest citizen by a newspaper called Crosswinds. It was on the Internet, so who knows how accurate the information is. At $25 million, he lags way behind the Maloof family. When I knew them, they were beer distributors. Now they own much of Las Vegas and even become regulars on the TV show Vegas. They clock in at $450 million. Yes, they are the richest family in New Mexico.

Still, Hillerman making this list is very good for a former professor and journalist.

One recent online review stated Hillerman's books are anthropological. When I was his student, he was good friends with fellow UNM Professor Frank Hibben. Hibben came to fame for finding the Sandia Man around 1935. A Time article in 1940 made him a bigger celebrity than Albert Einstein. I still remember seeing Hibben and Hillerman strolling from the school's Anthropology Department to the student union for lunch. Yes, Hillerman does have a passion for anthropology.

I recently discovered another Hillerman plum. In a 2004 New York Times op-ed piece, Hillerman wrote that presidential candidates should be required to take IQ tests. That idea will stand the test of time.

The most famous lesson Hillerman instilled upon me was to "stay current." One article noted in the late '80s that Hillerman had cassettes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Maybe that explains why on my external drive can be found Aly & AJ, Hannah Montana, OneRepublic and Jack's Mannequin. As Hillerman said "stay current."

For those who want to know a deep, dark Hillerman secret, he had a poker club. It met every Tuesday.

One member was one of my classmates, Jim Belshaw, who went on to big things at the Albuquerque Journal. "I think the relatively low stakes are one of the reasons the game has lasted as long as it has. We play for just enough to keep your interest but not enough for anyone to get hurt." For more than 35 years, Belshaw has been a Hillerman confidante.

"Unfortunately, Hillerman no longer plays. Tony has run into health (issues) and he's just not up to the task of four hours at a poker table."

As devoted Hillerman fans, let's hope Professor Hillerman does complete that next book, and as Spock would say, "Live long and prosper." We know about the prosper part.