Carl Hilliard, one of the best and most respected Colorado journalists of the 20th Century, died Sunday from a heart attack after a long illness at age 76.
During more than three decades with the Associated Press, for which he wrote a column that connected Colorado readers outside Denver with the goings-on at the State Capitol, he earned a reputation as a straight shooter in the proud tradition of the American West -- although he used words instead of bullets. And he didn't shy away from winging his own son on occasion.
Bronson Hilliard, a longtime friend of yours truly, started out in journalism, too, serving various stints at the Colorado Daily, most recently as managing editor. But he eventually left the profession to work behind the scenes at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Today, he's CU-Boulder's official spokesman, but his first gig at the school was as a speechwriter in the university president's office. As Bronson recalls with a laugh, Carl, a University of Montana grad who joined the AP in November 1964 (he reported in Wyoming until 1967, when he relocated to Colorado), "was quoted in the Daily as saying, 'He's left the Indians to join the wagon train' -- using a quaint Western expression in an amusing way to give me a little jab."
Carl gave the same treatment to the state's most powerful politicians in "Capitol Close-up." The column "was syndicated by the AP all through Colorado," Bronson notes. "It ran in every small-town paper in Colorado, and it was his way of explaining how goverment works, and about the people that made it work or, in some cases, made it not work. And he wasn't shy about calling out lawmakers who were more interested in themselves and their reputation than in their constituents.
"But he was also a member of that rare breed who was not ashamed to praise lawmakers who were doing good work -- to write about them as people. And when you think about where we are right now in our politics, where we are demonizing government itself and the people who serve in government, it's almost like he's leaving us at the right time -- because there's something heartbreaking about that. He and I talked about it many times: how blind hatred of government doesn't make government accountable. In fact, it blinds citizens to their real obligation to hold lawmakers accountable, and to make them more effective."
At the same time, Bronson continues, "he wanted to tell stories. He was an old cowboy and he loved funny stories -- stories that illustrated the Western character. He wanted people who read his column to see something about the government and the West they lived in, and he never strayed far from those values."
The subjects of his work respected Carl just as much as his peers did; he won the Lowell Thomas Award from the Colorado Press Association in 1988. "At his retirement party in 1999, both Governor (Roy) Romer and Governor (Bill) Owens came to the celebration," Bronson points out, "and I find that pretty telling. Can you imagine in today's political environment any government official coming to a reporter's retirement party? I think that was kind of a swan song for that era, where people could get along and be civil enough to have a working relationship like that."
Of course, Carl didn't only report on the legislature. He covered a wide range of news topics, from the United Bank murders to the Alan Berg trial, and even tackled sports, as witnessed by the accompanying AP photo of him with Muhammad Ali. In addition, he spent a quarter-century writing about the Denver Broncos, usually while clad in a purple parka so resplendent that Broncos linebacker Simon Fletcher once tried to buy it off his back -- "and everyone in the family wishes he had," Bronson concedes.
After his retirement, Carl didn't spend much time fretting about the state of journalism, preferring instead to work on a novel, travel with his wife, Lana, and hang out with his loved ones, including Bronson, his brother Brendan, and his three grandchildren. And that's just as well, Bronson feels. "I think the obsession with constant real-time reporting on trivial things would have really hacked him off," he says. "I don't think he was a guy who would ever have tweeted. My dad was not a tweeter."
Nonetheless, social media has given those who admired Carl a way to offer their memories of the man. "As I've been going through Facebook messages and missives from friends and family and his colleagues, the theme that keeps coming back over and over again is that he was one of the great ones," Bronson says. "He was old-school journalism, which I take to mean that he was interested in the story and not himself. He was interested in his readers and not his byline."
He'll be missed. Our condolences.
A memorial service for Carl Hilliard is in the planning stages and is likely to take place in the next few weeks. In the meantime, his remains will be cremated and scattered in the valley above Red Lodge, Montana.
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