Hillinger received an NAACP Image Award in 1980.

Charles Hillinger


harles Hillinger, a retired Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist who was known for human-interest stories about colorful characters he met while roving around America, died April 28, 2008 at a nursing home in Rancho Palos Verdes after a battle with cancer. He was 82.

His career in newspapers spanned more than 50 years -- 46 of them with the Los Angeles Times -- but Mr. Hillinger's roots started in the Chicago suburbs.

Born in Evanston April 1, 1926, Mr. Hillinger moved to Park Ridge as a boy. He was hired for his first newspaper job while in seventh grade, to head circulation for the Park Ridge Advocate, then part of the Pickwick Newspapers which were newly purchased by publisher and editor John W. Carroll in 1938.

A major part of the papers' circulation in those days was through a team of carrier boys, and "Chuck" Hillinger wrote a column, starting in December 1940, dubbed "Carrier Pigeon," to report on the news of his carriers.

During his junior and senior years in high school he worked as a copy boy and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune.

After service in the United States Navy in World War II, he earned a degree in political science at UCLA.

Hillinger joined the Times in 1946, working in the editorial library before moving on to become a reporter. He covered the Beatles' 1964 visit to Los Angeles and the 1969 splashdown of Apollo 11's mission to the moon. From 1985-91, his "Charles Hillinger's America" column was distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service to more than 600 newspapers.

Hillinger traveled around the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in search of characters. He worked on the premise that "everybody's important and interesting," Hillinger told CNN in 1996.

In Times feature stories, his column and books, Hillinger wrote about a 78-year-old prospector living in a tiny Death Valley-area ghost town; a Manhattan sidewalk pickle maker with 65 years on the job; and a Kansas crop artist whose "mural" was as large as 14 football fields.

Altogether, he contributed nearly 6,000 human-interest stories before retiring from the Times in 1992.

Hillinger "never wrote a dull story," said William F. Thomas, a former Times editor. He had an amazing amount of energy, and he was a very prolific writer," Thomas said. He used to have stories stacked on my desk. I kept telling him I couldn't use him every day without wearing out the public, but they were all good."

Hillinger also provided special features for a 1979-84 NBC series called "Real People," and after his Times retirement he continued to travel and write stories for more than 30 magazines. "No matter how old you are or how young, you can get caught up in the excitement of writing," Hillinger told UCLA's Daily Bruin in 1999. "It's the most wonderful life a person could ever imagine, and I enjoyed every minute of it."

California Characters, an Array of Amazing People

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Just about everyone has heard the old joke about what would happen if the United States were tipped on its side from east to west: all of the fruits and nuts would roll into California. Well, tip away! Charles Hillinger wouldn't mind. It would have given him more stories about the eccentric folks who already inhabited the Golden State, and listeners would continue to find out about some of the characters who make our state unique. In fact, he searched California to  find some of the colorful people who brought a special flavor to our state. "Down the Road" Dugan, "Spaceship" Ruthie, Val and Lilly Belle's  "Smallest Free Republic," are a few fond memories of people he met. Nutty as they may seem to some, they are the interesting detours along an otherwise boring road. Over the years I'd had some very interesting conversations with Charles. After Mom and Val died he wanted to make sure I kept mom and Val's writings, and we'd planned on a pot-luck dinner after spending the a day going over them. Unfortunately it never happened. In November, 2004 Mel and I were living in our trailer during the construction of our new home on the old Republic when he surprised us with a phone call. He wanted us to know about his new book that included a short story about mom and Val. Naturally, we purchased one in which he wrote this nice message.