Barry Hillenbrand graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences in 1963 with a degree in history. After graduation, he volunteered with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia then earned a graduate degree in history at New York University.
He joined TIME magazine in 1967 and spent most of his 34-year career as a foreign correspondent, including two years in Saigon covering Vietnam and Cambodia in the closing days of the Vietnam War. He bounced from three years in Rio de Janeiro to three more years in Bahrain covering wars and oil in the Persian Gulf with intermediate stops for a few years in the Chicago and Boston bureaus.
He moved to Japan as Tokyo Bureau Chief in 1986 being appointed London Bureau Chief in 1992 in time to chronicle Charles and Diana breaking up and the Irish making peace. He returned to the United States in 1999 to work in Washington DC covering foreign policy. He retired in 2001.
Hillenbrand has remained active with freelance editing and book reviewing for TIME, Washington Post, AARP The Magazine, and Commonweal. He has also edited WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association. He edits The Herald, the publication of Ethiopia & Eritrean returned peace corps volunteers. He has also undertaken speaking tours for the State Department to Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
What is the most enduring lesson you learned at Loyola?
Loyola in the ’60s had a stellar array of history professors – John J Reardon, Edward Gagan, Raymond Schmandt, to name a few – who taught me how to think. We learned to analyze an issue from all sides, ferret out sources, check facts thoroughly, and approach problems with skepticism while always questioning conventional wisdom. Wow. They were training future historians, but these were exactly the skills I needed for a life in journalism.
If you could go back to school, what Loyola course would you take? Why?
I’d head right for the fine arts department and take FNAR 201, Renaissance to Modern Art, followed by Music 155, Intro to Symphonic Music. LUC had no courses in art history or music in the ’60s, and that was a big hole in my formal education-along with economics. I’ve learned a lot about art, music, and especially economics in years of reporting on them, but it would be fun to take some courses and see if what I learned was right.
Where was your favorite place on campus?
Sitting on the steps in front of Madonna della Strada Chapel looking at the Lake
Why did you decide to become a journalist?
Unlike the rest of my family, I had no aptitude for science and did miserably in my two miserable semesters in pre-med. But I could write pretty well-and I was a romantic idealist who felt that journalists could help right wrongs and make the world a better place. I didn’t right very many wrongs, but I explained the world to readers. Maybe that made it a better place. I’m still a romantic idealist. And I had a lot of fun.
What is the most interesting part of your job?
Being paid to go to live in interesting places and learn new things. Every time I’d get bored (oh, God, not one more story on Japanese auto exports!), I’d be sent off somewhere (get to Manila today, Marcos is going down) and start learning a whole new topic.
What is the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
This may not be the greatest piece, but it was pretty good. An editor once suggested that I change “he refused to comment” to “he declined to comment.” That was subtle but important difference. So, I learned that journalists and writers need to pay close attention to the shadings of words and not use the overly dramatic word when a less contentious word is more accurate.
What book are you reading right now? Would you recommend it to others?
I always have several books going at one time. I’ve been working my way through Rick Atkinson’s The Army at Dawn, the first volume of his excellent trilogy about the American army in World War II. Definitely worth the time.
I’m nearly finished with Richard Wolffe’s Renegade: The Making of a President, the first book published about the Obama campaign. It’s just okay; it needed more editing. A better read, I think, will be Dan Baltz and Haynes Johnson’s The Battle for America 2008, which came out in August. That’s next on my list. Finally, I am listening to an audio book of Melvyn Bragg’s wonderful The Adventure of English on my iphone when I’m at the gym or working in the garden. It’s a fascinating history of the development of English. Everyone should read it.
What (or who) inspires you?
Reading a well-reported, well-written story in a newspaper, magazine or even-when they appear-online. Otherwise, listening to Mitsuko Uchida play Mozart.
If you could travel to any time and place in history, where would you opt to go?
Asia in 1945, based in Hong Kong. Everybody came through: Mao, Ho Chi Minh, MacArthur, Gandhi, Syngman Rhee, Magsaysay, dazed Japanese, failing British and French colonialists, bewildered, muscle-bound Americans. The second half of 20th century history was beginning.
Describe your perfect day.
A day when I can reach my retirement goal: never having to do anything you don’t want to do. I seldom reach that goal.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?
Gosh, having visited, for work or play, more than 90 countries, there’s not a lot left, but I guess I’d love to visit North Korea, a place only George Orwell could understand.
What’s your favorite Chicago pizza place?
I haven’t eaten pizza in Chicago in 30 years. In fact, I seldom eat pizza anywhere, if I can help it, and that’s mostly because the only kind I remotely like is deep dish which seems to be out of fashion most everywhere except Chicago. Right?
Who would you want to be for a day?
James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Popcorn. I can never resist buying it, especially freshly popped by a street vendor. I recently had a great bag from a guy selling it in the central square in Skopje, Macedonia. Delicious. And cheap.
Which one best describes you in college: athlete, intellectual, artist, young professional, activist, or social butterfly?
An intellectual who thought he was an activist. Or was it the other way around?