Hilde first came to national attention at age 9, when she covered a homicide in her hometown of Selinsgrove, Pa., for her self-published newspaper and website, the Orange Street News. When residents criticized her, and her parents, for covering such an adult topic, Hilde fired back with a video dismissing her naysayers: “If you want me to stop covering news, then you get off your computers and do something about the news. There, is that cute enough for you?”
More recently, at 12 years old, she stood up to a local police chief in Patagonia, Ariz., who threatened to arrest her for filming him while he was on duty. The town issued an apology after Hilde’s video of her insistent questioning of the town marshal went viral.
Maryanne Reed, dean of the media school at West Virginia University, said she saw stories about Hilde’s run-in with the police chief and started reading about her work as reporter, photographer, editor and publisher of the Orange Street News, in which Hilde regularly covers crimes big and small with light guidance from her father, author and former New York Daily News reporter Matthew Lysiak.
Reed didn’t have a commencement speaker lined up for the media school — which will have about 250 graduates and an expected audience of about 2,000 — and wanted something different.
“What an amazing person to relate to future journalists and communicators,” Reed recalled thinking. “If you want inspiration, look to somebody who’s just starting out, but who is so concerned and passionate about what she does.”
She spoke to Lysiak, who told Reed he drew new motivation from his daughter’s relentless drive, and made the decision.
“It’s really about bringing someone to inspire,” Reed said, “who’s different, who’s inspirational and a speaker our students will always remember.”
University officials said Hilde would be the youngest commencement speaker in the institution’s history, and perhaps at any American college. Teenagers and preteens have graduated from college before, but it’s not clear whether any spoke at their graduations. Each college at West Virginia University has its own commencement, rather than one schoolwide event.
“I was shocked,” Hilde said. “It’s such an amazing honor, and I’m really excited.”
The young journalist said she already has her speech written, and her father said she has been rehearsing. “I like to be prepared,” Hilde said.
What will she talk about? “I’m going to keep it a surprise,” she said.
Since the first burst of publicity around Hilde in 2016, she and her father have signed a book deal with Scholastic for a children’s book series called “Hilde Cracks the Case,” about a 9-year-old crime reporter. Six have been published so far.
She is also the subject of an Apple TV streaming series being filmed about a 9-year-old crime reporter who moves from Brooklyn to a small town (as the Lysiaks did) and uncovers a big story. Paramount Television is producing the show, which will star Brooklynn Prince and Jim Sturgess.
Hilde said Thursday she was “working on a new project that I’m pretty excited about.”
What about? “I can’t say,” she said.
When Hilde got into a dispute with the town marshal of Patagonia, Ariz., in February, she was working on an unrelated story. Like true competitive journalists, she and her father would not disclose the details.
Reed said she shared her decision with staff and colleagues and received “really mostly positive” responses.
“A couple people gave me that side eye,” Reed said. “‘She’s 12. What are you thinking?’ I say, she’s a remarkable 12-year-old. She’s the youngest person in the Society of Professional Journalists. She is not your typical commencement speaker, but she’s extraordinary and she represents the future of journalism, and isn’t that what we represent at the university?”
The idea of speaking in front of such a large crowd doesn’t faze Hilde. “It doesn’t intimidate me,” she said. “I just look at it as a new challenge.”
The commencement, scheduled 9 a.m. May 10 at the WVU Coliseum, is open to the public.