Saying goodbye to friend and cowboy journalist Carl Hilliard
“In the clearing stands a cowboy ... a writer by his trade.”
I thought that slight modification to Paul Simon’s lyrics to “The Boxer” would have been acceptable just this once as I looked at the portrait of my friend and former colleague Carl Hilliard and listened to the vocalist at the memorial service for the longtime Associated Press legislative correspondent on Sunday. Hilliard died of a heart attack at his home the weekend before last.
For 32 years he chronicled the activities of Colorado lawmakers, before retiring in 1999. For 13 of those years, we worked together during my two stints with the AP. After my exit, we continued our friendship.
Former Colorado AP editor Ward Marchant and I agreed Sunday that any combination of Hilliard and church seemed odd, a fact confirmed by the presiding pastor. A member of Carl’s extended family, she acknowledged that the “church lady” would be presiding over a mostly-secular service.
“Being in a church doesn’t make you a religious person any more than standing in a garage makes you a car,” she allowed, a sentiment that could have been penned by the guest of honor himself.
That portrait was of mustachioed Hilliard standing beside a horse in a mountain meadow, smiling broadly, happy in mid-life while enjoying activities learned as a child growing up in Wyoming and Montana. His cowboy hat rested on the altar steps.
There may never be a more unlikely or more perfectly cast political journalist than Carl Hilliard.
He had an exceedingly low tolerance for the b.s. and pomposity that too often accompanies political activities, and he delighted in exposing that in the weekly column he wrote for years that was circulated widely by Colorado newspapers.
When one of the many bureau chiefs he worked for suggested Carl tone it down a bit, editors across the state made certain that didn’t happen.
There’s a plaque memorializing Hilliard’s service affixed to the desk in the Colorado House chambers where he sat. A few years ago, he was inducted into the Denver Press Club’s Hall of Fame.
But the enduring tribute to the way he practiced his craft may have come at his retirement party, attended by governors and politicians of all stripes, as well as fellow journalists and others.
At that event, friend and former Denver Post political writer Fred Brown recalled, House Speaker Russ George, a Rifle Republican, asked Carl to finally reveal his political persuasion, something George and countless other subjects of Hilliard’s reporting had never been able to figure out on their own.
The gruff and witty nature often evident in his column and in any conversation with Hilliard also carried over into his family life.
His wife, Lana, noted that Carl’s summation of their marriage was that “we saved two other people from us.” At the service, Lana told the story of being in bed with Carl watching a movie in which a man spent a year in search of his kidnapped wife after efforts of police and private detectives failed to find her.
A misty-eyed Lana asked Carl, “Honey, would you come looking for me like that?”
“No,” her loving husband replied. “He’d have to figure out how to escape all by himself.”
Hilliard’s son, Bronson, is the spokesman for the University of Colorado, after serving as a speechwriter for a former CU president. In one obituary, he recalled the reaction when he accepted that earlier job after stints as a journalist himself.
“He’s left the Indians and joined the wagon train, ” his father opined.
I suspect Carl wouldn’t have been pleased with either the state of journalism or politics these days.
In his day, politicians could fight tooth and nail on the floor of the Colorado House and Senate, then buy one another dinner or drinks at the Profile or the Senate Lounge afterward. Today, politics is a blood sport.
He was one of the last of the political journalists to help us understand why we ought to be concerned about the machinations of our elected officials. Today we get cursory reports on the flare-up of the moment.
Carl Hilliard has been and will be missed.