Beloved Author Dies

Date October 26, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication Journal Santa Fe

Categories Local News & Sports

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Tony Hillerman, who brought the beauty and endurance of the American Indian culture and the landscape of the Southwest to millions of readers in this country and abroad, died Sunday.

Known by most as a writer of mysteries set on Navajo, Hopi or pueblo lands, Hillerman was also a reporter and editor, journalism teacher and mentor. Over his lifetime, he wrote or contributed to more than 30 books, was on the New York Times best-seller list and received every major mystery fiction award.

He died in an Albuquerque hospital of pulmonary failure. He was 83. He is survived by his wife, Marie, and six children. Funeral arrangements will be announced.

"He grew up humbly, and that's always who he was," his daughter Anne Hillerman said. "Despite all the honors and recognition he got, he always stayed the same guy."

Tony Hillerman called New Mexico home for more than 50 years, but his roots go back to Sacred Heart, Okla., where he was born to a family of farmers in 1925.

He fought in World War II, receiving a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. After the war, a reporter read letters Hillerman had sent to his mother. She saw talent and told him to pursue journalism.

"He belongs to a generation that is about to disappear over the edge of history," said a New York Times review about his memoirs, "Seldom Disappointed," calling them "laced with humor and worldly wisdom."

Hillerman could always tell a good story, his daughter said.

"He really loved a good conversation, and he was a good listener. He was a natural storyteller," she said. "When my brothers and sisters were growing up, he would tell bedtime stories, and we would always be the heroes of the stories."

After the war, Hillerman studied journalism at the University of Oklahoma and received his degree in 1948.

He worked at newspapers in Texas before moving to Santa Fe to work for the United Press International, a news-wire service. He later became the editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Hillerman moved to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico in the early 1960s.

"He was really an outstanding person. ... He was a real asset to the university and a great source of information. He was not only an outstanding writer but a great teacher and mentor," said John Perovich, a former UNM president who worked with Hillerman when both were in the university's administration.

Teaching, just like writing, was always his passion, Perovich said.

"I don't know any journalism student that didn't think the world of Tony," he said. "And of course, he trained many of New Mexico's newspaper people."

During his time at UNM, Hillerman also served as the faculty adviser of the New Mexico Daily Lobo, the student-run newspaper at the university.

Roger Makin, who served as editor of the student publication in 1973-74, said Hillerman was a legend at UNM, not because he was a published novelist, but because of his reputation as a journalist. "He knew his craft very well. ... He was incredibly astute, an observer of what was going on around him," he said. "And he wanted everyone who worked at the Lobo to try and get that same kind of sense."

Hillerman served as chairman of the journalism department from 1976 to 1981, before taking up writing full time.

He published his first Indian Country novel, "The Blessing Way," in 1970.

"The landscape out there just always blew him away. It's just an incredibly vast and gorgeous, gorgeous country," said Anne Hillerman of the settings for the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee crime novels. That landscape, Tony Hillerman would say later, is where he took long drives when stuck on a plot.

The first film for the PBS "Mystery" series to be made in the United States was based on Hillerman's "Skinwalkers."

"He really captured the essence of the Southwest, the native people, the Hispanics, the Anglos. ... He really knew how to capture it and tell it," said Dennis Herrick, a lecturer of journalism at UNM and a recipient of the Tony Hillerman Mystery Short Story Writing Contest award. "It's just his writing, it seemed effortless. I'm sure it wasn't, but he made it look easy."

Although Hillerman was a best-selling novelist, he was always humble about his success, Herrick said. "He loved to tell stories of himself doing embarrassing things and the wrong things. He loved to tell stories on himself €” not about himself €” but on himself," Herrick said. "You never believed he was an international best-seller by just running into him."

His modesty goes way back to his roots, Anne Hillerman said. "He grew up basically as a country boy, and that's always who he was. I think that's one reason why he really enjoyed and found so much inspiration in writing about the Navajo people. He really felt a lot of connection to the landscape where they lived," she said. "He was a very generous and giving person his whole life."

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