Tony Hillerman (1925-2008)

Tony Hillerman, reporter, editor, journalism professor, and writer of the NYT bestselling Joe Leaphorn-Jim Chee mystery series, died Sunday evening in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Winner of the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and virtually every other writing and literary award, he made New Mexico come alive for people all over the world. His novel Skinwalkers propelled him to the top of the mystery field and remains a landmark work.

Many articles on the web will have the particulars on Tony—how he was a newspaper man, taught college, became a very prominent literary figure of our time. But none of that captures the essence of the man—who he was is far more important than what he did—and I think Tony would approve of that sentiment.

The first time we met Tony all the area writers were gathered at Winrock Center to sign their books. Management there wanted to have Tony’s name displayed in HUGE letters, and not list the rest of the authors there. What Tony did then shows you more about the man than anything I could say: He refused to have his name up unless all other names were also listed.

Tony was like everyone’s favorite uncle. He was always there for all of us. The first time we wrote about Shiprock using a Navajo lead, we were writing romances. I needed information for a segment of the book about the Tewa Indians (also from New Mexico) so I called Tony for help. He shared his own sources with me. When the book was finished, I called to thank him. And as we were talking, he asked me to send him the book. I hemmed and hawed, uncertain about it. Tony was larger than life for most of us. He pushed me and so I finally said, “Tony, it’s a romance.” There was this huge pause and finally he answered. “So what, do you think I only read Hemingway?”

Tony quoted on our work and started us on the track we follow today. Later, when Robert Redford wanted to have dinner with him to talk about optioning his work, I’d heard that he’d actually said no, and rescheduled because he had a poker date with his buddies. When I spoke to him I asked him if that was true, because I couldn’t believe it. Tony said, “Of course. I’d already made arrangements to meet friends. I couldn’t cancel for something like that. Wouldn’t you have done the same?” This time I was the one who paused. “Well, no, I wouldn’t have. And Tony, my friends would have understood! Robert Redford? They would have had me stoned if I hadn’t returned with a ton of photos!” Tony just laughed. “Well, that’s cause you’re a woman.”

That was Tony. His priorities were always on the mark. He took time for people, and helped you even when you didn’t have the guts to ask. His work as an author is what he leaves behind, but his real legacy is the way he lived his life.

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