In memory of Wiley

January 30, 2014




Sallie Rose Hollis
Guest Columnist


Wiley W. Hilburn Jr. was a giver of gifts.


But not necessarily the kind received on birthdays or Christmas. He believed if you treat the people you care about well every day, you don’t need to create a big fuss one or two days a year. No, Wiley’s gifts were usually of a different nature.


One gift was appreciating life’s everyday moments: a red leaf in the wind, iced tea sweetened in the pitcher, holding a dying father’s hand. In turn, he taught us to do that in his classes.


“What did you eat for supper?” he wanted to know. Then, he seemed truly elated to find out it was pork chops, turnip greens and hot water corn bread.


“Significant details,” he called those things.


Observations that bring an event into focus for the reader. A lone tennis shoe at the scene where a Tech student died. Wrinkled pants of a Louisiana politician.


Of course, that wasn’t all he taught us. As one graduate wrote recently, Wiley also lived for the story – and that made us do the same. Don’t back down. Ask the tough questions. Live life passionately. And no one – no one – lived life more passionately than Wiley.


As a nurse wheeled him away for heart surgery 20 years ago, he told his wife, Kate, “I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do. Whatever happens, it’ll be all right.”


In mid-January, as Wiley lay in ICU the day before he died, Kate told me, “I thought that was so kind.”


Indeed, it was, and he was, even though he might shove you a little during a meeting if he disagreed with you.


But, oh, my, how he’d have your back – and then push you out front where you could shine. He knew how to prime us to reach our potential, how to make us believe in ourselves, how to find the best in each of us, how to see beyond the commas.


Along the journey, never going gentle into that good night (appropriately, because Wiley loved that Dylan Thomas poem), Wiley got away with critiques that might have cost others their jobs. Warning one student, he promised, “If you ever put something like that in my paper again, I’m going to cut off all your hair in some kind of weird punishment.”


Did the students rant and rave and hate him for it? No, instead they swore to do better. They promised never to submit anything less than their best – partly because Wiley usually followed up with an arm around the shoulder. “I just want you to understand,” he would say.


So not only was Wiley a gift-giver; he was also gifted. People skills. Decades of columns. North Louisiana. Nature. History. Humor. Politics. People – from governors to the Huddle House gang. Nothing escaped Wiley – except his car keys or his car or his glasses.


Maybe, though, his greatest gift had nothing to do with his beloved journalism. Maybe it just had to do with life: He knew how to love – and to be loved. How to let people know he loved them.


His final act – death – underscored this once more. Many former students now say they wish they had told him how much of an imprint he made on their lives. I understand.


I was waiting to arrange our next luncheon date. We had already agreed to meet – as soon as the holiday hustle and bustle died down. It never happened.


But, as Wiley said, “It’s all right.” Wiley knew how much we loved him. All over North Louisiana – his loyal readers, his friends, his journalism family – we gave him more than 50 years of superb everyday moments that he relished as no one else could.


Wiley, even after your passing, you’re still teaching. Dylan Thomas would be proud.


Sallie Rose Hollis met Wiley Hilburn in 1969 at a high school career day. She graduated from Tech in journalism in 1974 and subsequently taught with Hilburn for 34 years, retiring in 2008.




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