It’s no wonder Lafayette oilman Paul Hilliard is one of this year’s recipients of the Horatio Alger Award. His life story sounds like it could have been written by Charles Dickens or Saul Bellow, much less Alger himself.

Born during the Depression in a community called Sandburr Coulee, Wisconsin, he walked two miles (presumably barefoot through the snow), to Alcohol Bluff to attend a one-room, two-outhouse schoolhouse . When he was nine, his four year old kid brother burned down the barn and the winter hay supply, “a providential event,” he says, “that forced us off the farm and into town, pop. 1,896, and introduced us to the luxuries of electricity and indoor plumbing.” Right out of high school, in 1943, he joined the Marines during WWII, and served as a radioman-gunner in SBD “Dauntless” dive bombers in the Philippines. After the war, he finished his education at the University of Texas, with a Bachelor of Law degree. But Texas being Texas in the 1950s, he found his way into the oil patch, working for Chevron as a landman, although he is most proud, he says, of being fired from H. L. Hunt in 1955. Hilliard settled in Lafayette, and has been an independent oil and gas producer for 58 years.

Hilliard takes his civic duties seriously. As a member of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, he served on the Energy, Education, I-49 Task Force, Governmental Affairs and Economic Development Committees. He’s been president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, served on the board of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, chaired the Independent Petroleum Association of America and is a member of the National Petroleum Council. His international affiliations? “Sam’s Wholesale Club,” he says. Other business ventures over the years have been “numerous money-losing commercial real estate ventures,” causing him to suffer a “near-terminal case of edifice complex.”

He is also a major patron of the arts. In 1995, Paul and his wife Lulu made a $5 million donation which was the seed money to build the University Art Museum, later named for the couple. Hilliard also is a generous donor to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans and serves on its board. Fifty-year member of the Lutheran Church, loving husband to Lulu, who passed away in 2005, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, painful punster and notorious wit, if Hilliard hadn’t lived such a picaresque life, perhaps Larry McMurtry would have created him.

Horaito Alger is a 19th century author who wrote a series of novels about child bootblacks, newsboys, tinkers and street peddlers who rose from poverty into the well-fed middle class, overcoming adversity through unyielding perseverance and basic moral principles. The Horatio Alger Association is dedicated to the simple but powerful belief that hard work, honesty and determination can conquer all obstacles. Horatio Alger Award recipients are dedicated community leaders who demonstrate individual initiative and a commitment to excellence; as exemplified by remarkable achievements accomplished through honesty, hard work, self-reliance and perseverance over adversity.

Hilliard is in very good company. The 2009 recipients are James S.C. Chao, chairman, Foremost Group, David Foster, producer, composer and arranger, Reprise Records / 143 Records, Rebecca MacDonald, founder and executive chair, Energy Savings Income Fund, Michael G. Morris, chairman, president and CEO, American Electrical Power, Indra K. Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer, PepsiCo Inc, Carl H. Ricker, Jr., founder, chairman and CEO, Azalea Holdings, Thomas Joseph Shannon Jr., founder, T-Bird Restaurant Group, Inc, Denzel Washington, Academy Award-winning actor and director, Robert Lee Wright, chairman, FE Holdings, Inc. and Stephen A. Wynn, chairman, Mirage Resorts, Inc.

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