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Journalist John Hilferty, 83

John Hilferty, 83, who capped a distinguished journalism career at The Inquirer by becoming a travel writer and novelist, died Dec. 15 of a heart attack at his home in Moretown Village, Vt.

John Hilferty
John HilfertyRead more

John Hilferty, 83, who capped a distinguished journalism career at The Inquirer by becoming a travel writer and novelist, died Dec. 15 of a heart attack at his home in Moretown Village, Vt.

Born and raised in Media, Mr. Hilferty graduated in 1955 from Temple University, where he majored in business and journalism.

He learned the reporting trade at small Pennsylvania newspapers, notably the Reading Times.

It was in Reading that he met Eleanore "Ellie" Diehl, a teacher who would become his wife, the mother of their two children, and frequent muse. A gifted photographer, she illustrated their two history books on Vermont's Mad River Valley and his travel columns.

"I was a librarian at the Reading Public Library," she recalled of their first encounter. "He came in to renew a book. An amazing thing happened that had never happened to me: I looked into his eyes, and I felt electricity."

Nonetheless, when he asked her out - calling minutes afterward from a phone booth outside the library - she demurred so she could check his bona fides. They married five months later, in 1962.

In 1968, she said, he interviewed at both The Inquirer and its bigger rival, the Philadelphia Bulletin. He took the higher salary offer.

Over the next 26 years at The Inquirer, his versatility and reliability led to jobs as an editor in the suburbs, a columnist, a reporter, and back to editing.

He was part of the Inquirer team that won a 1980 Pulitzer Prize for covering the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. That same year, he won a citation for investigating the gangland murder of Philadelphia Mafia boss Angelo Bruno. In the Trenton bureau, he covered the governor, Legislature, State Supreme Court, and Casino Control Commission.

That led to writing about organized crime, including the disappearance of former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, which provided background for his post-retirement novel, From the Dead.

Michael D. Schaffer, a longtime Inquirer editor who retired this year, recalled working with Mr. Hilferty in the Cherry Hill bureau.

"He was an old-style newspaper guy, very practical and grounded. Slightly cynical, but not in a bad way," Schaffer said.

Howie Shapiro, now a theater critic for WHYY and the Classical Network, was an intern when Mr. Hilferty assigned him a story about gypsy moth control - and then mildly helped him fill holes in the story.

"He was level-headed and - unlike what I imagined editors to be - he was almost strangely calm," Shapiro said. "I discovered editors are your safety net. He was a great safety net."

Nearly 30 years later, when Shapiro was The Inquirer's travel editor, they worked together again. Mr. Hilferty, who retired in 1994, wrote a monthly column, "Senior Traveler," from Vermont, where he and he and his wife had moved to pursue their favorite hobbies - skiing and traveling.

"He would find stuff I could never even imagine asking him to write about - cruises, discounts, insurance - because he was ahead of the curve," Shapiro said.

Indeed, "Senior Traveler" was picked up by several other newspapers and won awards from the Mature Market Resource Center.

"It was wonderful. We went all over the place," Ellie Hilferty said, ticking off memorable trips, including Egypt, Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Finland, Holland, and Italy.

Unlike journalism, fiction writing did not come easy to Mr. Hilferty - his first novel gestated for a decade - but he reveled in it. Moonlight in Vermont, that self-published mystery/romance about a World Cup skier, won a National Indie Excellence Award in 2007.

The skiing scenes are "so vivid you will feel the rush of wind and ice crystals on your cheeks," one reader wrote on

Mr. Hilferty was active in the Mad River Chorale, in his church - St. Patrick Catholic Church in Moretown - and in local Republican politics. He also loved spending time with his children, John Hilferty III and June Cook (who also relocated to Vermont), and his six grandchildren. They all survive him, as does his sister.

The date of a memorial service has not yet been decided, but will probably be in January, his wife said.