Besides my grandfather, whom I consider the greatest man I ever knew and who greatly influenced my personal life, two other men have had an equally tremendous impact on my professional life.
In 1966, tired of climbing poles for the telephone company because it was far too much like work, I walked into the offices of the Ruston Daily Leader in response to an advertisement in the paper for an ad sales representative. It didn’t take publisher Tom Kelly long to realize I had no aptitude for sales and he soon “promoted” me to sports editor.
It was while serving in that capacity that I returned to the classroom, pursuing a major in physical education at Louisiana Tech University with the goal of becoming a baseball coach. It was also about that same time that Wiley Hilburn, only five years my senior, left his position at the Shreveport Times to return to his hometown of Ruston to head the Journalism Department at Tech. Seeing something in my writing that impressed him (I still don’t know what it was), he convinced me to abandon my aspirations of coaching baseball in favor of a journalism major. I often joked with him over the ensuing years that I might someday find it in my heart to forgive him.
It was those two men, Tom Kelly and Wiley Hilburn, who cajoled and encouraged me and molded and shaped my career as a writer. I owe the two of them a debt that can never be repaid.
Today, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2013, Wiley Hilburn died and on this day, I feel a void and a sadness much like the way I felt the day my grandfather died. Though deeply personal, I shall endeavor to share a little of what I know about him.
He had been battling cancer and we were told it was in remission. The news was all good until he recently developed pneumonia. That, along with his already weakened condition, was just too much for his 75-year-old body to endure and today one of my two mentors and a dear friend was ripped away and I feel cheated and empty inside.
During my return to Tech as a student, I left the Daily Leader and took a job with the larger, more regional Monroe Morning World (now the News-Star) where I primarily worked the editing desk laying out the pages and writing headlines. I was fairly proficient at writing headlines for the stories and in my concurrent headline writing class at Tech, Hilburn—deliberately, he confided in me later—always gave me wire stories that he thought would be difficult to write headlines for. “But you still always finished before anyone else in the class,” he would tell me later. “I would get so frustrated trying to challenge you.”
Hilburn loved jokes and he especially loved—and appreciated—practical jokes, even when he was the butt of the joke.
Once, when after graduation, I ran the Ruston Bureau for both the Morning World and the Shreveport Times, he dropped by my office to ask if I had any Times stationery. He said a group of Tech administrators that included Alex Boyd and Weldon Walker, among others whose names I don’t recall, were hand circulating a get-rich-quick chain letter on the Tech campus and he wanted to pull a prank on them.
Together, we crafted a letter to Tech President F. Jay Taylor, who was in on the plot from the beginning. The letter, ostensibly from Times Editor Raymond McDaniel, “informed” Taylor that the Times had become aware of the chain letter and while the perpetrators were not breaking the letter of the law since they were not using the mail to solicit investments, they were nonetheless violating the spirit of the law and that “our man in Ruston, Tom Aswell, will be investigating the matter.”
Taylor, himself a lover of practical jokes (I’ll get to his momentarily), dutifully called the men into his office. There were three or four of them and as Taylor read the letter aloud in the serious and deliberate tone that the circumstances dictated, each one saw his career flash before his eyes. Boyd, knees weak and visibly shaken, had to sit down and kept muttering that his career was finished. Kaput. Walker, however, was defiant. “Aswell wouldn’t do that to me! He’s a friend of mine!” Finally, Walker, ignorant of Wiley’s involvement and by now grasping at straws, hit upon the only obvious solution: “Get Hilburn in here! He’ll straighten this out! He worked for the Times!”
Playing the string out to the end, Taylor obligingly called Hilburn to his office and upon his arrival, he found the men in a collective state of despair. Unable to keep a straight face in the presence of such morose trepidation, Wiley gave it all away by cracking up with laughter.
Far from amused, a furious Walker swore revenge and we knew he was serious.
A year or so later, right around Christmas, I had moved on to the Baton Rouge State-Times and in a moment of mischievous inspiration, called Walker. “You still want to get even with Hilburn?” I asked.
“Well, think about this for a classified ad in the Daily Leader: ‘Don’t throw that old Christmas tree away. We recycle and we will pay you for your old tree. Just drop it by (Hilburn’s address, then in the Cypress Springs subdivision in Ruston) with your name and address on a tag and we will mail you $5.’”
“I love it,” Weldon blurted. “I’m gonna do just that.” I was just as thrilled to be part of a plan to turn the tables on Hilburn because I, too, loved practical jokes—and still do.
That weekend, Betty and I traveled to Simsboro just seven miles west of Ruston to spend the weekend after Christmas with her parents. I immediately grabbed my mother-in-law’s Daily Leader issues and began looking for the ad. Nothing. Not a word. Zilch. Disappointed, I called Weldon and asked, “What happened?”
“I’ll tell you what happened,” he thundered. “You and that s.o.b. Hilburn are what happened! I’ll tell you one damned thing: I better not find one damned Christmas tree in my yard or it’s gonna be somebody’s ass!” I could almost see the veins bulging from his neck.
Thoroughly confused by now, I called Hilburn who, laughing and without prompting from me, informed me that Tom Kelly had intercepted the ad before it got into the paper and, recognizing Wiley’s address, called him in. Hilburn asked who took out the ad and when Kelly showed him, Wiley suggested that Weldon’s address be substituted and a single page proof be printed. Wiley then took the page proof and stuck it in Weldon’s mailbox and when Weldon saw that…well, it was far better than the original plan. Only after he was finished did I inform Wiley that I was in on the plan for Weldon’s revenge, all of which made the entire episode even more hysterical to both of us.
On another occasion, a July 4 weekend, I drove over to Canton, Texas, to attend the world’s largest flea market and returned with several antique typewriters and a fire truck siren—items I had absolutely no use for. Almost, anyway. One fine day, with nothing else to do, I wired the siren into the ignition of Wiley’s old red Volkswagen Beetle and then walked across the campus to the Wyly Tower and took the elevator up to Taylor’s office and told him what I’d done.
Without a word, he picked up the phone and dialed Hilburn’s office. “Wiley,” he said, “I’ve had my car in the shop and they just called to say it’s ready. Could you give me a ride to pick it up?”
“I’ll be right there,” Hilburn replied.
We laughed like high school sophomores as we listened to the wail of the siren as he drove across campus to pick up his boss and by the time he walked into the office, Taylor was in tears.
Wiley Hilburn loved life and he loved and kept up with his students. He could tell you where each of his former students were long after they had left Tech. And make no mistake about it, his students loved and respected him.
But as much as he loved life and those around him, his life was still incomplete: Regrettably, he never got to see his beloved Chicago Cubs win the World Series—or even play in one.
This morning, feeling somehow that the end was near, I sat down and composed the following in his honor. It’s not classic poetry but I believe it accurately—and adequately—conveys my sentiments:
The Coffins That Pass Me By
As I pass from middle age to my golden years,
And contemplate how time can fly,
It’s not the setting sun that brings the tears,
But the coffins that pass me by.
Whether ’twas friend or foe matters not a drip,
For one and all, life’s wells run dry;
And it’s not that I fear making that trip,
It’s those coffins that pass me by.
Friends and loved ones will pay their respects
As they share stories and laugh and cry;
And each one standing there quietly reflects
On the coffins that pass us by.
Whether ’tis loved one or stranger who goes on first,
Our own fate is to one day ride
On that dreaded journey we all have cursed
In that damned coffin that once passed us by.
Go in peace, my friend.