Danny Heitman’s “At Random”: Columnist knew what’s really important

I didn’t attend Louisiana Tech, where Wiley Hilburn, longtime chair of the university’s journalism department, taught hundreds of aspiring reporters and editors how to perform their craft.

But even though I never sat in Wiley’s classroom, I counted myself for many years as one of his students. His work was a continuing lesson for me and other Louisiana journalists in how to do a job well.

Wiley, who died recently at 75, complemented his teaching duties by writing a column for The Monroe News-Star and The Times of Shreveport.

He was an astute commentator on politics, but his best columns were about topics in and around his home in the north Louisiana community of Choudrant.

Wiley believed that the seemingly ordinary moments of daily life, such as lunch with a friend at the local diner or the arrival of a cardinal in the backyard, could be windows to wisdom..

That alertness to grace in the everyday deepened for Wiley in 1994, when a heart attack reminded him of life’s real priorities.

“Even in my hectic life, I enjoy little things,” Wiley wrote back then. “Like a black, late afternoon thundershower or a spider dangling on its silver string. Now, I’m even more focused on what’s really important. In these Choudrant woods, autumn is arriving on a path of amber leaves. I’m going fishing this week for the first time in years.”

Wiley was fond of an Italian proverb, “Illness tells us what we are.” The truth of that folk wisdom became even more vivid for Wiley in recent years, when cancer entered his life. The health crisis further sharpened Wiley’s focus on life’s biggest gifts: friends, family, nature, simple pleasures.

In a column from two decades ago marking his 55th birthday, Wiley summed up his philosophy: “I know where I live, who I am, and who I love.”

Virginia Woolf once suggested that in order to successfully write about yourself, it’s important to master the much harder job of being yourself.

Wiley was a master at it. He didn’t pretend to be smarter or wiser or more virtuous than his readers, and his authenticity shined through every sentence he wrote.

But don’t take my word for it. Some of Wiley’s columns are available on the Internet, and also in a couple of collections published as books, “Fragments” and “New Seasons.”

I’m crossing my fingers that more of Wiley’s work will be preserved between covers.

His death prompted me to pull “New Seasons” from the shelf, and it’s been a comfort to realize that even though Wiley’s gone, his body of work is still with us.

I bet that many other fans of Wiley Hilburn’s writing are revisiting his columns in these sad days since his passing. Those of you who are newcomers to Wiley are in for a real treat.