Born May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Okla., population 50, Tony Hillerman was the son of August and Lucy Grove Hillerman. They were farmers who also ran a small store. It was there that young Tony listened spellbound to locals who gathered to tell their stories.
The teacher at Sacred Heart's one-room school house was rumored to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan, so Tony's parents sent him and his brother, Barney, to St. Mary's Academy, a school for Potawatomie Indian girls near Asher, Okla. It was at St. Mary's that he developed a lifelong respect for Indian culture — and an appreciation of what it means to be an outsider in your own land.
In 1943, he interrupted his education at the University of Oklahoma to join the Army. He lugged his mortar ashore at D-Day with the 103rd Infantry Division and was severely wounded in battle at Alsace, France. He returned from Europe a genuine war hero with a Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, temporary blindness and two shattered legs that never stopped causing him pain.
He returned to the university for his degree and, in 1948, married Marie Unzer. Together, they raised six children, five of them adopted.
As a young man, he farmed, drove a truck, toiled as an oil field roughneck and worked as a reporter and editor for the Borger News-Herald in Borger, Texas; the Morning Press-Constitution in Lawton, Okla.; United Press International in Oklahoma City; and the Santa Fe New Mexican, where he rose to executive editor. He quit in 1962 to earn a master's degree from the University of New Mexico, where he later taught journalism and eventually became chairman of the journalism department. In 1993, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.
Hillerman was still teaching when he wrote his first novel, "Blessing Way." A story that always made him chuckle: His first agent advised him that if he wanted to get published, he would have to "get rid of that Indian stuff."
Although Hillerman was best-known for the Navajo series, he wrote more than 30 books, including a novel for young people; the memoir, "Seldom Disappointed"; and books on the history and natural beauty of his beloved Southwest.
Occasionally, he was accused of exploiting his knowledge of Navajo culture for personal gain, but in 1987, the Navajo Tribal Council honored him with its Special Friend of the Dineh award. He took greater pride in that, he often said, than in the many awards bestowed by his peers, including the Golden Spur Award from Western Writers of America and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, which elected him its president.
Hillerman was survived by his wife, Marie, and their six children.
The cause was pulmonary failure, his family said. A daughter, Anne Hillerman, said her father had survived two heart attacks and operations for prostate and bladder cancer, The Associated Press reported.
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