-30- Hilburn calls it a career at Tech
Teddy Allen’s Q & A with Retired Journalism Professor Emeritus Wiley Hilburn…
Wiley Hilburn, who gave The Tech Talk a voice of its own, taught two generations of students how to be journalists, and worked 41 years for the university he loved, retired this summer after 41 storied years at Louisiana Tech.
Wiley was the head of the University’s journalism department and news bureau and, on countless occasions, Tech’s spokesman. He was editor of his hometown paper, The Ruston Daily Leader, at age 21, and his editorials and “Fragments” column have appeared in The Times in Shreveport and The News-Star in Monroe for four decades.
During his final week on the job, Wiley took time to answer some questions for Teddy Allen, a former student and currently a writer in the University’s marketing and public relations department and, like his mentor, a newspaper columnist. Here’s their conversation from Wiley’s Keeny Hall office.
Q: When was the last time you were in the classroom?
A: Two years ago. An editorial writing class, a course I could teach by heart. Or at least should be able to; I’ve written more than 2,000 editorials for The Shreveport Times. …
Q: Did you know it would be your last class?
A: Not really, not at the time. Mom got sick and that was the reason I pulled back and started just teaching the lab classes, the Individual Studies. Sometimes in those situations we had tears in here. It was all one-on-one. They’d do the work and come in and I’d critique. Sometimes people come in here triumphant. I never realized until lately that sometimes they sat out there gasping for breath before they came in here. It was kind of a combat course. I guess I sweated it out too, when I was a student. Robert Snyder was the teacher who gave me confidence, just like he did for you. Until I had him and gained some confidence, I had no idea what I could do. He told me I had some ability; no one else had ever said that before. I sort of modeled my oral critiques as a teacher on what Mr. Snyder had done for me.
The oral critique is something I used for just about everything in my writing classes. I just can’t get in front of a class anymore. I suffer from a panic disorder. Really. So I get them to turn in long subjective assignments, then I sit down in my office or at the back of the classroom and critique.
Q: You weren’t always that panicky in the classroom or in front of people, right?
A: Right. But I always knew there was a problem. For a long time the panic came across as being sincere and not scared. Then I did a deal in Monroe for their Chamber of Commerce … I got over there and my throat filled up with gravel, it felt like. Horrible. When I got there, it was like a whirlwind. I felt I had asthma, heart arrhythmia and irritable bowel syndrome all at the same time. It was so bad I couldn’t even remember much of it. The next guy up to speak was the police chief; he said, ‘I’m almost as nervous as Mr. Hilburn.’ After I survived that I told my secretary not to let me put myself in that situation again. Ever.
Q: What’s your favorite stuff to teach?
A: The creative writing course. You get to work with the students very closely. I had them keep a three-week diary that was very intense. I spent half the quarter on that journal. I just wanted students to know that what they had to say was very important. To get them to write it down slowed them down some, made them realize, when they saw their own thoughts on paper, that they had a lot to say, that they really did have some good ideas on all sorts of things. It was a very intense course. Students still come back or call and talk to me about things that were in their journals. Talked to one just the other day. He’d written in his journal that his daddy had always told him, ‘Watch the ball into the glove.’ And he based his whole life on that sentence: Watch the ball into the glove. Another kid had said his dad had put a deer rifle in his mouth and killed himself; until he wrote it down, he thought he was the one who’d done something wrong and caused it. Those are just a couple of things that show you how students could be very frank in those journals. I asked them to be, but they still surprised me. It was just amazing to me. And it wasn’t all unhappy things. One girl wrote that her in-laws expected her to come to Minden every two weeks and shell peas. Very ‘human’ writing…
Q: Your favorite car?
A: The old black Thunderbird. Three or four years ago I told some students they could use the car to go run an errand. I told them it was OK with me if they revved it up and drove it fast. They didn’t; they told me three red lights were on on the dash when they got in. Guess I wasn’t paying attention. I got it about five years ago. I loved it, it just, it just didn’t ever really do right.
Q: Worst car?
A: Well, this wasn’t my worst, but I had an old Buick that I disliked so much I wouldn’t even wash it. Never did. Someone told me I could grow tomato plants on top of the hood, there was so much dirt on there.
Q: Is your reputation for getting a lot of parking tickets on campus deserved?
A: Not really. I think I’ve had as many as over a thousand in one year. I always felt I had to pay them. I mean, I was the head of the News Bureau; I had to be purer than Caesar’s wife. Sometimes the officers over there would take pity on me, maybe cut the fines from $600 to $400, something like that. The university treasurer really summed up my parking deal: He pointed out a ticket I got at 11:15 at night, when mine was the only car on campus, it was during Tech’s break – and I was STILL parked illegally. I’m a scofflaw. I don’t know why I do that. At LSU in graduate school, I couldn’t even park in the ‘penalty’ lot!; that’s how bad I was. I couldn’t park where the illegal parkers parked. I had to park somewhere around Baker or something. I’m not proud of that.
Q: How does it make you feel to be called a ‘Tech institution’ after teaching for 41 years?
A: I don’t like to hear that. There’s not any nobility in numbers, not at all. I remember my old friend Raymond McDaniel, when he was editor of The Times, telling me after he was there 35 years that after 20 years he probably should have gone somewhere else … I’ve said this before: the 41 years, I feel like it sort of makes me a curiosity. And the reason I stayed so long – this is not going to sound believable – is I didn’t want to have a retirement party. That sounds crazy, I know. But it’s the truth. (Editor’s note: Wiley DID have a party, at the Marbury Alumni Center in August. It was very well-attended by many friends and fans – and even by Wiley. His wife Kate spoke for him and read a short note written by Wiley for the occasion. Then he went home to watch his team, the Chicago Cubs, play on television. They lost. “Nothing’s perfect,” he’d say later.) I had this heart surgery, these five bypasses, in June, and once that was over, I’d have rather gone through it again than go to the retirement party. As soon as the date was announced, I began to suffer from shapeless dreads and apprehensions. I dreamed I’d get up there to speak and then all of a sudden, I’d just take off running! It was very, very real. I just couldn’t have gotten up there to say anything. I know that makes me sound ungrateful, and I’m not; but you just can’t help the way you are about some things.
Q: At the party, you were named Journalism Professor Emeritus. How does that feel?
A: I was glad to get that. It represents something the university did not only for me but for my faculty too. I was really surprised. I feel honored. Overwhelmed, really.
Q: The honorary and earned title means you’ll get to keep an office on campus, right?
A: Right. I’ll be in the office I have now through the fall quarter; I don’t know where they’ll put me after that. I’ll be up here a little in the fall, but not when other people are around.
Q: Any more plans to teach?
A: No. After 41 years, I think I need to be out of here. We need some people with new ideas, fresh ideas. When I’m here I’ll be here when nobody else is here. I wish them well, I really do. I just feel that when it’s time to leave – like it is for me — you ought to get on out of there.
Q: How long will you keep up your weekly column?
A: I don’t know. I’ve talked to the publisher of The (Ruston Daily) Leader about coming down there and working with some of their young editors. That’s something I think I’m going to do. But first I’m going to take off three months and do nothing. I’ve held down three jobs since I was 15 or 16; I want to see what it’s like to be idle. I can stay at the Huddle House as long as I want to; I can watch the Cubs play afternoon games. I just want to see what ‘idle’ is like, what everybody else says is not a good thing for you. I want to experience it.
Q: Your children. Kevin’s teaching, Ann Marie’s at the library, and Greg’s in the newspaper business at The News-Star. I wonder if you feel sorry for Greg or have a special tie to him because of his profession. It can be a tough business.
A: I’m just really proud of Greg. He’s been at The News-Star for 24 years, built up a lot of trust among his contacts over there. I admire him so much for that.
Kevin…what better can you ask from your kids, professionally, if one of them wants to be a teacher? And we need more men teachers in our schools, so I’m happy where he is. Ann Marie’s at the library; I’m very happy about that. And the library we have in our community, it’s really a great one and I think she just makes it that much better. I’m so proud of all three of them.
Q: Do you remember your first day of work at Tech?
A: Well, I remember my first year. The cross burning in the yard, all that stuff, since we were trying to liberate the school paper. I didn’t have time to think a lot that first year about it BEING my first year. I was always grateful to Dr. F.J. Taylor (now Tech President Emeritus) for standing by me and telling me at the end of that year that we’d done a good job. He even gave me a big raise. At the end of that year most everyone else was down on me because of what we were trying to do with The Tech Talk, even though I knew we were doing the right thing. And we weren’t making the news; the stories of that era, that year, at that time, the stories were just controversial. The whole thing caused just as much problem for Dr. Taylor as it did for us, maybe more than it did for me. It was intense on a week-to-week basis. Always anxious.
Q: What was your hardest season at Tech?
A: That first year, really. That was the hardest. People decided as we went along that we were going to have a student newspaper that would have opinions, even the opinions of students. After that first year, things got a lot easier.
Q: Talk about the changes you’ve seen at Tech during your career.
A: Dr. Reneau has very rarely made a wrong step. I can say that without people thinking I’m playing favorites, because I’m leaving. The big change is he installed the research component on campus. Everything from nanotechnology to biomedical engineering … sometimes it’s been a lonely path for Dan. A lot of people think the university is a place where you get a good education, and that’s a good thing of course and that’s still true. But he’s added this research component, and a lot of people don’t understand how valuable and forward-thinking that is. Tech and LSU are now easily the two best schools in the state. The research component has enabled us to get more funding than most other schools do. It was a gutsy thing to pursue because some people thought we were leaving our central mission, which is teaching. We haven’t done that. People have the wrong idea about research, particularly here. Our English and history and foreign language programs, Dan has kept them strong while adding this other. That’s what I like. Our liberal arts have remained strong, and I can speak directly to that. So easily, adding the research mission is the biggest change from when I first came.
Q: What are some of your hopes for your University?
A: I just hope the state continues to reward Tech for what it does best, which is research and getting the best freshmen students here. We’ve got better freshman now than we’ve ever had here. Our ACT scores are with LSU’s, the highest in the state. We just continue to get the best students. As long as that continues to happen, I think our university will do well. And this is going to be a hard time next year, with the budget the way it is. But the state is finally beginning to recognize performance, and not just warm bodies. The formula for funding used to be based entirely on warm bodies. Now the formula acknowledges that we bring in the best students and we bring in research. The natural progression from that would be a steady improvement. We’ve deserved to be rewarded for those steps for a long time.
Q: Your best memories of Tech.
A: No question, it’s been the students. My final thoughts will be of students. I couldn’t really say I’ve ever had a bad day here. I have an open door with students, you know that. Everybody knows that. I could always count on one of my students every day, any day, to say something to lift me up, whether they knew they’d done that or not. And the good thing is, my students are still out there. I’m still in touch with them. Not a week goes by that I don’t talk to one of my graduates somewhere. The students have ‘made’ my life at Tech. I’m so grateful to them on a daily basis. So it’s not over for me. I’ll be able to see them perform all over the country, really. We’ve had our time together here at Tech and for me, it’s been spectacular. I’m not leaving because anything’s wrong. Nothing’s wrong. It’s just time.
Written by Teddy Allen