Every time I’ve read about Wiley Hilburn’s impending retirement, I started to write a letter in my mind. Usually at night, or when I’m engaged in some activity making it impossible to go to my computer. I vow to remember my thoughts and capture them in the morning.  Of course, I never follow up. After all, what can you say about Wiley Hilburn that hundreds of other journalism students haven’t already said, many of them, more eloquently than I ever could.

He taught us well.
He taught us the difference between being a columnist and a reporter.
He modeled fearlessness about expressing our own point of view.
He treated us as the unique individuals we are; each of us feeling like his “favorite.”

All true, all accurate.

It’s also true that he created a safe environment for us to flourish as young writers.

And, he forced all of us to tell ourselves the truth through his (seemingly, at first) creepy assignment of keeping a journal.  In your late teens and early twenties, you think your thoughts, hopes and dreams are unique and terrifically personal. And, he says he actually read each and every entry of each and every journal.

I came to Tech as a transfer student from LSU.  I followed a boyfriend from home, an EE Tech student, who was the reason I breathed. Luckily for me, Tech had a second-to-none J School with an excellent faculty that welcomed me with open arms and put to me to work on the Tech Talk immediately.

I liked Mr. Hilburn right away; he’s an immensely likeable person.  But, I didn’t really “get” him right away.  Here was a man, a father, a professor, a mentor, a talent who was all those things all the time. Every day.  He wasn’t one persona at work, another at home, yet another in the community. He was Wiley. He made quite an impression on a young woman from the big city who hadn’t previously realized that you didn’t have to compartmentalize your life.

As I think about it, he may have been the first adult figure in my life to talk to me as if I were an adult. And, he respected my opinions as an adult. It’s a lesson I’ve used with my own children and my friends’ children through the years.

I knew for sure that Wiley was a friend when, during the summer between my junior and senior year when my heart got broken into a zillion tiny pieces, he wrote me a letter.  He managed the impossible with his words.  He consoled a 21 year-old who swore her life would never be worth anything again.  Sure, he had to evoke the wisdom (and voice) of Patsy Cline (he included a cassette tape of “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You.”)  But the point is, once again, he was the voice of reason … the only one in my life at the time who said, “Go ahead and cry your eyes out … it hurts like hell, and it will for quite awhile.”  And, he was right.

That was 28 years ago.  A lot has happened in our worlds since then.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I thought about Tech, my classmates, Hilburn and Keeny Hall (the basement of Keeny Hall, no less).  I wish I would have kept in better touch.

But, how do you thank a man like Wiley Hilburn for having a profound effect on your life and introducing you to the incomparable Patsy Cline? And, if I could only know for sure whether he read those journals ….

Wiley W. Hilburn is a prominent journalist in North Louisiana. Since 1968, he has been Chair of the Journalism Department at Louisiana Tech University and Director of the University’s News Bureau. His popular weekly column appears in the Shreveport Times and the Monroe News Star. His books include Fragments, New Seasons, and Reflections of North Louisiana.

This blog originally was posted August 2009.