Longtime friend Lew Thompson was among the first to recognize Hillerman's talents. Both attended the University of Oklahoma, and Hillerman succeeded Thompson as editor of the school's humor newspaper. "I knew Tony was a winner all the way," he said. "I had a (limited) budget, and he was one of the writers I recruited because he was one hell of a storyteller."
Hillerman worked at newspapers in Oklahoma and Texas before coming to Santa Fe, where Thompson later joined him.
"I went into the advertising business and worked for The New Mexican," Thompson said. "Tony's the one who got me into Santa Fe. He'd say, 'Come on, let's get smart. Join me in paradise,' and I did."
Throughout the years, the two friends trekked to Las Vegas, Nev., dozens of times to play poker, most recently a couple years ago. Thompson said he went to win, while Hillerman, trying to break from some of the reclusiveness that writing brings, enjoyed socializing. "I went there to enjoy the discipline of poker; it's a quiet game and it's a an absorbing thing, and if you play it well, you win some money," Thompson said. "He went there to be with people and have fun. ... He played well, but I could never get him away from the table a winner."