Wiley Hilburn, Jr. has died. He is the man who shaped my writing and my career as a journalist. Each day, I think of myself first as a writer, knowing that writing is the root of my media training and crisis communications programs. Likewise, my skills as a journalist and television reporter, cultivated by Wiley, allowed me to have two great careers that have sent me circling the globe.
The death of Wiley Hilburn, Jr. is not breaking news. January 16, 2015 marks one year since his passing. Although a year has passed, I think of him often because he is alive in me. Not only is he alive in me, but he is alive in the pens and keyboards of journalists and public relations people across America.
Wiley was the head of the Louisiana Tech Journalism Department. He launched young journalists, like a parent should launch their children. Wiley nudged us, the way a mocking bird nudges a chick from the nest. He made sure we could fly. He nudged more than a few chicks out of the nest knowing they were better off eaten by a cat than to be in a newsroom. If you had the right stuff, Wiley praised you and nurtured your writing. If you didn’t have the gift for writing, he didn’t mince words in advising you to seek another career path. Every quarter he would bring each writer for the Tech Talk student newspaper in for a personal evaluation of their clipping file. We used to take bets in the newsroom as to who would leave Wiley’s office crying after his evaluation.
He was also famous for his back-of-the-classroom private evaluations about what you wrote for each class assignment. He never knew everyone could hear him until the day he praised me for having no misspelled words, just a week after giving me a C on a paper, upon which he wrote, “I’d like to take this to the Shreveport Times, where I’m known as a horrible speller, just to prove there is someone who spells worse than me.” On the day he gave me his “private” praise, the class stood and applauded. Wiley turned beat red and asked, “Have ya’ll always been able to hear all of my evaluations?” Wiley and I laughed about that day every time we visited. After my first week as a television reporter – a job he helped me secure – he sent a handwritten note that said, “You are doing great Gerard. As far as I can tell from your reports there are no misspelled words. You were made for TV.”
My creative writing style has never come close to Wiley’s. I’m envious of great creative writers who have a true gift of describing details and sounds and scents and moods. News and television writing were the places where I found my comfort zone.
Wiley took Mark Twain’s advice to write what you know. His writing was brilliant enough that he could have lived and worked anywhere, but he chose to stay close to home, living in Ruston, Louisiana writing as a columnist for the Shreveport Times and the Monroe News-Star. His columns were about the people, places, and unique little tidbits that only people along this Bible Belt region of Louisiana could appreciate.
My friend Bob Mann wrote of Wiley’s death one year ago as, “The Passing of a Louisiana Journalism Giant.”
Indeed, we all looked up to Wiley. And he always looked at us over his heavy rimmed glasses, which were broken at one hinge and held together with Scotch tape for most of the years that he was my professor. His thinning hair was always tousled. Wrinkles in suit never bothered him.
My hope for each of you is that there is someone special in your life who was pivotal in shaping your career. I hope you remember them with great fondness the way I remember Wiley today.
By Gerard Braud