"When he gets to me," Hill recalls, "he finds out that I'm a reporter and he just talks and talks and talks and talks. I'm sitting there thinking, 'This is really interesting, I'm talking to this candidate and congressman about all of these big important issues.'" The host (whom Hill says was "in his cups") joined the conversation, threw his arm around Edwards and said, "Governor, I guess you know you're talking to the No. 1 political reporter in northeast Louisiana." (At the time, Hill says he was the only political reporter in northeast Louisiana.) "Edwin looks at me, winks and says, 'Yes, I know that. Why do you think I'm standing here licking his ass?' And that's how I started."
Later on in both men's careers, when Hill wrote unfavorably about Edwards, the governor charged at him at a public gathering and threatened to "whip his ass" once he was out of office. "So for my entire career," Hill says, "Edwin Edwards had this preoccupation with my ass."
The veteran reporter's career is ending on a higher note than the imprisoned Edwards, who's serving time in a federal prison on fraud and racketeering charges. Hill took a retirement buyout package from Gannett, and after 38 years as a reporter, his last day on the job is this Friday, Aug. 17.
Hill's first day on the job as a capital correspondent in Baton Rouge was Halloween 1973. He already had been reporting on politics for The News Star since 1969. At the time the paper was owned by the same family that owned The Shreveport Times. Hill had attended college at LSU, but he had no idea he would spend nearly 40 years working from within "the bowels of the Capitol," in a windowless office in its basement.
In 1979, Gannett bought both The News-Star and The Shreveport Times. Three years later, Hill would become a contributor to the fledgling USA Today, the national newspaper owned by the Gannett chain. When Gannett later acquired The Alexandria Town Talk and The Lafayette Daily Advertiser, Hill was named the capital bureau chief for all four papers, covering Baton Rouge and state politics.
Of all the stories he has witnessed and recounted over the years, Hill says the one he will remember the most is his own. In August 2000 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had successful surgery a month later. He wrote about his personal experience for the papers. "An amazing amount of men, one out of four, is going to develop prostate cancer," he says. "I wrote about it and opened the mail one day and there was a letter saying, 'Thank you for saving my life.' It was from someone who had, because of this series, went in and got a cancer check and found it through early detection." Hill heard from multiple readers who found and successfully treated their prostate cancer.
But the biggest political story of his career ' and the one that forced him to consider retirement ' was Hurricane Katrina. "My heart has been really in New Orleans since the storm," he says. Hill already was renting a second home there, part of an 1832 townhouse, just four blocks from the convention center. Four days after Katrina hit, he returned to the city, rented out two additional apartments in the building and spent more than a month running a bureau for USA Today.
"That's when I became committed to retiring as soon as possible and moving down here fulltime to help in the recovery," he says. "I felt like there had been a death in my family. I think the entire state of Louisiana felt like there had been a death in the family, and we all went into the stages of grief that we're still in. It was horrifying, and the stories were just so intense. All I had to was to walk out the door and find the first person I ran into on the street and there was a compelling story to be told. There were 500,000 compelling stories. Everybody went through this and had a unique experience. I remember telling a young [Associated Press] reporter, 'I really feel sorry for you guys because this is really the biggest story of my entire career, and I'm nearing retirement. You guys are just starting out. I don't know what you're going to do after this.'"
Hill later helped some friends, an 80-year-old couple, sift through the remnants of their lives with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, in hopes of saving some mementos and keepsakes in their flooded New Orleans home. "I can't say I know how it feels to lose everything, but I have a clue," he says. "I went through their lives day after day after day for about two months, sifting through their belongings, and I spent so much time there, at least I understood what people were doing when they went back into their houses ' the work they were doing."
The storm and its aftermath solidified Hill's resolve to retire and pursue other avenues. He's considering media consulting, teaching and even consulting for political campaigns, which he says he can't even consider or discuss until he leaves his current post. When he does, Gannett will not fill his position. "There will be no replacement," Hill says. "Mike Hasten will be the single correspondent." In his work with the American Journalism Review, Hill has watched the steady national decline in coverage of local politics. "Newspapers are cutting back and closing state capital bureaus," he says. "I always knew when I retired I would not be replaced. I've known that for some time."
Hill's also witnessed the rise of a new breed of media. Newspaper deadlines are no longer daily, but every second of every day, with papers pushing to post content online first and break news stories. He says in the rush to reinvent itself, the newspaper biz doesn't always get it right the first time and sometimes has to make corrections and provide greater context in follow-up stories.
"But the most alarming I think is the loss of civility," he adds. "People are no longer civil to one another in the political arena. And a lot of these angry people on blogs and talk radio are getting into personal attacks and nastiness. We were taught in high school debate that you could disagree without being disagreeable. Somehow, people are beginning to think that you have to be disagreeable in order to disagree."
Hill knew in December that it was time to ride into the sunset. "It takes an awful lot of energy to sit around and think up creative ways to cover a campaign that are fresh and better," he says. "It's just enormous. Right now, this is not the most fascinating campaign of my career either. So there were a number of things that just came together at this particular time. You sit down and in your heart of hearts, you know that it's just time to go. I want to leave this while I can still do something else. And the idea of avoiding having to cover an election campaign is really delicious."
The fight to clean up Lafayette Parish could get some added ammunition with two ordinances up for votes Tuesday by the City-Parish Council targeting litter-bugs.
By striking a deal to lessen the blow of health insurance changes on state workers, school employees and retirees, Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration lowered the volume of criticism but gave itself and local school boards a new budget headache.
With the airport tax coming up for a parishwide vote in about a week, the Broussard City Council and its mayor have come out in support of the proposal.
Protesters rallied peacefully in several Louisiana cities in the wake of the Missouri grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of Michal Brown.
US cities bidding on Olympics; Guard prevents more Ferguson riots; storm threatens travel and more national and international news for Wednesday, November 26, 2014.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
The U.S. rep billed LSU for work allegedly performed on the same days Congress voted on major legislation and held important committee hearings on energy and the ACA.
Abysmally low participation by the public has prompted the council to scuttle the 2014 survey with plans to simplify it and try again next year.
The village now says the ordinance will likely be overturned and authorities will more vigorously enforce existing leash laws.
Bill Cassidy cast an early ballot Tuesday, seeking to draw renewed attention to a race that has fallen off newspaper front pages and away from people's minds as they plan holiday meals and shopping schedules.
Battered all night by Baltimore's relentless pass rush, Drew Brees could feel his protection collapsing and Terrell Suggs getting ahold of him as he urgently unloaded a pass to the right flat toward tight end Jimmy Graham.
After a convincing defeat at the polls on Nov. 4, Earl “Nickey” Picard has decided to let bygones be bygones with his former right-hand man Brian Pope, announcing his support for his former employee’s runoff bid to become Lafayette’s next city marshal.
Saturday the athletic department did everything possible to ensure the 2014 Ragin’ Cajun seniors remembered fondly their last home game. Rain and lightning never arrived but turbulence did in the form of the Appalachian State Mountaineers.
Even stranger than the Republican Party’s decision to hold a “unity rally” earlier this month for Congressman Bill Cassidy in a Baton Rouge bar, Huey’s Bar, was the fact that the establishment was named after Louisiana’s most famous Democrat.
Bar Code is not a gay bar.
After failing to pass a medical marijuana bill last year, state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, is telling supporters he will return in 2015 with legislation that focuses on different applications like oils and pills.
Voters, obviously, are not yet tuned into the 2015 ballot, despite the intriguing races it will host.
By now, the story of how longtime LSU coach Dale Brown discovered Shaquille O'Neal has been told many times: Brown happened upon a massive 13-year-old at an army base in Germany, stayed in touch with him and eventually became like a second father.
Fate simply wasn't ready to give the New Orleans Saints a break from longtime nemesis Steve Smith.
Lafayette Police have had a busy day.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration will use $130 million in patchwork financing from a tax amnesty program, insurance settlement, uninsured motorist penalties and other excess funds to close most of the state's midyear budget deficit.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said she disagrees with President Barack Obama's actions on immigration, hoping the latest controversy doesn't worsen her campaign difficulties.
Gay-rights advocates challenging Louisiana's same-sex marriage ban announced Thursday that they have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review their case before it is heard by a federal appeals court.
Thinking himself the “son of God,” the man charged with the 2013 killing of an officer of the Chitimacha Tribal Police will not stand trial following a ruling Thursday on his mental competency.
Either Saints coach Sean Payton doesn't want to tip Baltimore off as to who'll start in New Orleans' secondary on Monday night, or he really doesn't know yet.