Journalism legend to retire

May 15, 2009

by Kevin Sims

After 41 years of service at Tech, Wiley Hilburn will retire as the head of the journalism department in August.

Hilburn said he does not take much stock in how many years he has served as department head but that his legacy will be defined by the students who graduated under him.

Throughout his tenure, “The Tech Talk” has seen over 100 editors-in-chief go onto successful careers, scattered throughout the country from “The Ruston Daily Leader” to the “USA Today.”

“I’m really kind of embarrassed I’ve been here 41 years because it is so long I feel like some sort of a curiosity, some kind of dinosaur they’ve found somewhere out west,” he said. “What I will miss are the students. There is not a day go by that a student does not do or say something that doesn’t inspire you.”

Hilburn started his career at Tech in 1968 when former Tech President F. J. Taylor approached him while he was working for the “Shreveport Times,” and offered him the job as head of the journalism department.
Skeptical at first, Hilburn accepted the position on a year-to-year basis.

He said one of his first tasks at the university was to liberate “The Tech Talk” from being an administrative mouth piece.
He encouraged the staff to write editorials condemning the Vietnam War and urge the university to take a more proactive stance in support of the Civil Rights movement.

“For instance, we had a column that endorsed the Black Panthers and you can imagine how this went over in conservative Ruston,” Hilburn said. “It was hard for me and those first editors. One night I looked out the window and the Klu Klux Klan was out there, and they actually burned a cross in my yard. It was scary, but at the same time it confirmed that I wanted to stay here until we could have a better paper.”

Although he will forever be known for his time spent as an administrator at Tech, Hilburn built a highly decorated career as a professional journalist, with a weekly column that has been gracing the pages of the “Monroe News-Star” and the “Shreveport Times” for more than 30 years.

Hilburn started his journalistic career at age 16 as a sports writer for the “Ruston Daily Leader,” working his way up to editor by age 21. During his time at various newspapers, he wrote a series of profiles on Louisiana governors from Huey P. Long on called “The Louisiana Lions.” In 2001, Hilburn become one of only two journalists inducted to the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame.

After his retirement is official, Hilburn said he will look forward to taking a well needed break from the journalistic lifestyle.

“I’ve been working since I was 15 years old, and I just want to know how it feels like to have a few days, even months without facing a deadline either for a column or a paper to grade, and I just never had that experience,” he said.

Although he is giving up a position he has held for more than half of his life, Hilburn said little will change with his daily routine. He will still stop at Huddle House two times a day, a tradition he said he started when the restaurant opened in 1981, drinking coffee with his adopted Huddle House family which includes Dixie Griffin, an engineering professor at Tech, and George Butler, a mathematician. He also made sure to keep his seat at all the Lady Techsters basketball team’s home games beside former editor-in-chief of the Tech Talk and current Associate Athletic Director of Media Relations, Malcolm Butler.

“I’ve been here so long, I [was here] when the Lady Techsters were founded,” Hilburn said. “Since I was in on the ground floor with the Lady Techsters, if they have a bad year, my winter is bad. I’m that much of a fan.”

When General Douglas MacArthur retired in 1952, he said he would always think about “the plain and the plain and the plain at West Point.” On his retirement, Hilburn said his thoughts are very similar.

“What I’ll be thinking about is the students and the students and the students,” he said.