Welcome to the Great Americans page.
What you will find here is more about the book, where to buy it, and supplemental information about each story. In some cases, the supplemental portions will be updates on the person profiled in the story. Or a discussion of a writing point. Or just a reflection by me.
You will also see tabs on this page where you can learn more about me, about my other books, about my work in narrative medicine. You can always reach me at Michael.email@example.com or @michaelvitez or on Facebook.
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Great Americans: Stories of Resilience and Joy in Everyday Life is a collection of 30 of my favorite and most inspiring stories from 30 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer. I was a Pulitzer Prize winning staff writer there until late 2015, and concentrated on human interest stories and narratives. I am a storyteller and believe profoundly in the power of stories to inspire, to bring people together, and to change the world. My compass point as a writer has long been a quote by William Faulkner from his Nobel Prize winning speech. He said that it is the writer’s privilege and duty “to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
In my own small way, in a career in daily newspapers, I’ve tried to do that. I chose these stories in particular because they highlight our spirit and sacrifice and determination and commitment and goodness. Most of these people in this book faced and overcame incredible adversities. They are indeed Great Americans.
With a lifetime of stories to choose from, selection was a challenge. I tried to include stories of different lengths, stories that reflected important milestones in my writing life, stories that generated huge responses from readers, stories that just stuck with me. The book also has other features that I think are very important. At the end of virtually every story I’ve added a postscript. This includes an update on the subject of the profile, and a discussion or focus on one element of the writing.
In addition to being a source of pleasure for anyone who loves to read great stories, I hope this book can also serve as an excellent teaching tool for aspiring feature writers. I include a list of many rules and tools of writing and reporting that I’ve learned over a lifetime. And I expand on many of these writing points here on my website.
There is one other component to this book. I’ve included five of my own personal stories, short narratives about my life that reflect on and highlight my own development as a writer. I am profoundly grateful to the photographers whose work appeared with the original stories and is included in this book. They are all supremely talented journalists and many of them good friends. Photographers April Saul and Ron Cortes won the Pulitzer Prize with me.
I also must thank Bill Marimow, the Inquirer editor, and Gerry Lenfest, the former owner, for giving me permission for using these stories in this book. And I must say one of the greatest joys of putting this book together was working with Gene Foreman, the longtime and much esteemed managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who advised me and edited this book.
These stories are a sampling of my life’s work, an expression of how I see the world, and I suppose an example of my own resilience and joy.
A Mother’s Mission: Sarah Gray
Sarah Gray herself contacted the paper about her visit to Philadelphia, asking for coverage of her story. This made some reporters at the paper understandably uncomfortable. It seemed self-promotional. An editor asked me to cover it, thinking it an interesting story that this woman, after the death of her son, was tracking down where his donated tissue had gone. I had a very good life at the paper. I was largely left on my own to do my own stories, so when editors asked me to pitch in I tried my best to be accommodating. I also thought the editor had good instincts. Yes, Sarah Gray was seeking coverage of her own story. But I saw nobility in what she was doing. She had lost a son. She like so many who had suffered through a tragedy, tried to take that heartbreak and turn it into something positive, constructive. Her passion and commitment took her to places few had ever gone – to meet the researchers who received her son’s tissue. She saw the value of her son’s contribution and had become an advocate, a disciple for organ and tissue donation. That is hardly unworthy or inappropriate. The fact that she was now working in the non-profit world advocating for tissue donation didn’t bother me as a journalist. I thought the fact her son’s death and triggered this change in life for her was potential for a good story and admirable. So I saw no conflict of interest, just a mother trying to give meaning to her son’s life and death. I had no idea what I’d find when I went to meet her that day, or just how good the story would be.
It was really a very simple story by newspaper standards. I heard her speak and give a presentation for 45 minutes in the morning to the match.com folks, the procurement organization that matches requests from scientists with donations from hospitals and donor organizations. That gave me a good outline of Sarah’s story and journey. Then I interviewed her and her husband for another hour, drilling down deep on certain moments in that journey and making sure I understood her narrative. She had some original materials with her, the email from the director of the eye institute in Boston who thanked her for her visit. Then I followed her to Penn, observed her interaction with the scientists there. I probably spent five hours, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. I think I roughed out a lede back at the office briefly, that afternoon, maybe the top. It just came to me. I’m a simple writer. I saw it as a story and I started it at the beginning.
As I wrote, the form began to take shape. I think I finished a rough draft or at least an outline by 6 p.m. and went home. I came in the next morning, and filled out the story, then cut the fat, and polished it. I think I had the story done by noon. It wasn’t a long story. It came fairly easily, as stories go. As I said earlier, in the book, the idea of using the t-shirts as a form of structure and momentum all just happened.
Charlotte Sutton, who edited the piece, did a very nice job. She tightened the lede a bit, buffed the story to a shine, and that was that. I think it ran on the health and science front, and not the front page, but still just took off and went viral.
I did not expect this one to reach the stratosphere any more than I hope and expect all of them to reach that height. It was a fascinating thing to watch. A story starts out on Jupiter, or the Sun, where internet gravity is so heavy. The closer you are to zero page views, or shares, the harder it is to get traction, to lift off, to get reader views. But as the story gets read and shared, it truly does become viral. And the gravity seems to get lighter, it seems to get much easier to jump from 10,000 page views to 20,000, and easier still to get to 40,000. And soon you are on Mercury or Venus or the Moon, where there is little gravity at all, and the story spreads to 100,000, 500,000. This is also the power of exponents, the very meaning of the word viral.
In any case, the story I believe changed Sarah Gray’s life, helping her get her book published. I think it gave readers a great lift, a reminder of the wonder of the human spirit and the importance of tissue donation and research.
And it was a reminder as a writer that a simple story can have great impact and do much good, and that you never know exactly where and when you’ll strike gold. The lesson here is don’t be too quick to judge and dismiss an idea. Or, perhaps, the corollary is even better: be prepared to find the unexpected. Approach every story with a sense of wonder.
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He Just Keeps Rolling Along: Floyd Culver
I was so taken by Mr. Floyd that I wrote a screenplay based on his character. I had been covering aging issues at the time, and spent nearly one year at a nursing home, the Presbyterian Home at 58th Street, in a poor neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia, on a series of stories that ran in the Inquirer in 1998. In my screenplay, Mr. Floyd’s character delivers newspapers to the nursing home, and he stops in every day and visits one resident, Miss Naomi, who is suffering dementia. He is sweet on her and brings out moments of clarity in her.
It was a non-profit nursing home, with a rich history, started in the 1860s for Civil War widows by the good citizens of Philadelphia with a tradition of giving great care. The original building was a beautiful old stone structure. In my screenplay, the nursing home is bought by a corporation and the entire culture is changed, and the level of care really declines. The nursing home residents, aided by good-hearted and well-armed drug dealers from what has become an impoverished neighborhood, rebel against the takeover. They occupy the nursing home, where many of their grandmothers happen to live.
Through it all the courtship between Mr. Floyd and Naomi flourishes. In the ending scene, Mr. Floyd is riding off, carrying Miss Naomi in the giant newspaper basket on the front of his bike, the trail of her wedding gown fluttering in the breeze. The script never sold, but I so enjoyed writing it. Thanks for letting me enjoy it all over again by sharing it with you.
Other things about that story on Mr. Floyd: How did I know his 140 copies of the Daily News weighed 90 pounds? I went home with ten copies. I stood on the bathroom scale with them, and then again without them. So now I knew what ten newspapers weighed, and did the math. I believe strongly that specifics and details _ important details – greatly enrich the storytelling, and make the story more vivid, and help reader’s visualize a scene in their minds’ eye. The weight of the newspapers in this case is a telling detail because it makes us appreciate just how much weight he’s lugging. It helps us see. To expand on this point, I really believe readers want to understand how things work. I asked a door man I featured once to share with me his technique for opening doors. (His answer was brilliant and beautiful: “Sometimes I use my left hand, and sometimes my right.”) When I wrote a story about the disappearance of crushed ice, I really explained the advantages of cubed ice, how easily the cubes are made, the advantages of the various shapes. (“We live in the Big Gulp Society, where soda cups are buckets and ice is supposed to last for hours. Cubed ice is colder than crushed (26 degrees compared with 30). Cubes have less surface area and will not melt as fast in a drink (avoiding what ice techies call a “water cap”). Carbonation also lasts longer with cubes. Crushed ice is fragile, ephemeral. It has no place in the beverage world.”)
If you can explain things clearly, readers love to understand. The challenge in stories like the one on crushed ice is to explain the physics or the process without losing the narrative flow, always keeping paramount the passion of the main character. In the case of this story on Mr. Floyd, I just thought it important readers understand how much this frail man was lugging around, and how much his own bicycle weighed. I also wanted them to see in the mind’s eye how he got on the bike, and how he got off.
I also thought there was only one way to do this story, and that was to follow him on his route. So I got up early, put my bike on the back of the car, and met him as he began well before dawn. Interviews with him, and with his daughter, and others, I did before or after I spent the morning with him, and worked those into the narrative. I thank my former colleague, Mark Wagenveld, an editor who lived in Mr. Floyd’s neighborhood, for telling me about the story.
And the structure here was simple. I went with him from beginning to end.
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A Custodian in Every Sense: Dan Harrell
What makes Dan Harrell a great story? The best stories come from being rooted in the world, from knowing your world. For five years, I taught at Penn, as an adjunct professor, and one of my former students, who played volleyball, knew Dan Harrell and suggested I write about him. She knew the kind of story I liked to tell, the kind of people I liked to profile. “I think I have a great one for you,” she told me. She was so right. My first reaction, however, was to encourage her to write the story. She was adamant; she wasn’t interested. She had enjoyed my class but wasn’t an aspiring journalist. When I was sure she was freely and willingly handing off the idea, I happily accepted.
I called Dan and asked to meet him. We met at the Palestra, and he gave me a tour. Then we sat in the arena and I asked him about his life, his background, his relationship with students, his dreams and plans. The pitch to me, by the student, was that Dan is beloved, an institution, and that he would be graduating himself that spring. After I spent a couple hours with him, I realized that the story was much larger than just being beloved. He was a custodian in every sense of the word. He was a custodian of these students, a mentor and guardian, as well as a custodian of the hardwood and locker rooms. And even more, he was an inspiration. He, just like these young students, so many of them from privileged backgrounds, was getting his degree at 56. I think Dan could sense my enthusiasm for his story, and as he talked and told me about his life and family and past, seeing my genuine reaction, he became even more animated. I knew I had a wonderful story. And I decided that day, as I spoke with him, when I wanted to do the story: the day of the Penn-Princeton double header in basketball, for him and for the arena the biggest day of the year. I considered waiting until graduation and marching with him and his broom. That would have been incredibly powerful, too.
But the Penn-Princeton games were only 8 weeks away, and the best chance to see him in action. It just felt right. The pressure of daily journalism, the appetite for copy by editors, is often so great that writers can’t wait for the optimum day. Dan Harrell would have been a good story any day, just interviewing him, interviewing some of the students who loved him. But to be a great story I needed to see him in his element, at work. This decision to follow him on the day of the Penn-Princeton game made the 8-week wait so worth it.
I also knew I had work to do. I needed to interview his wife and daughters, who gave me wonderful material that I tried to weave seamlessly into the narrative, enriching it. I needed to interview others whom he respected and who were well known institutions themselves around Penn, like basketball coach Fran Dunphy. This would add credibility to Dan. I wanted to talk with his professors, or at least one of them. I did as much preparation in advance as I could. I interviewed Dan once more, asked him more about his classwork, his goals. I wanted to make sure I had all I needed before the big day. Because I knew from experience that on the day of the game, much of my time would be spent observing, listening, thinking, trying to be quick on my feet.
I also knew I needed to be at the arena when Dan arrived at 5 a.m. One rule I try to teach students is to spend the time. Storytelling can seem a very inefficient business. You spend lots and lots of time, and end up throwing away most of what you gather. Or much of the time spent seems uneventful and wasted. But what you keep, what you find, what you get for spending the time is often gold. It sure was in this case. You have to put in the time. The amount of time of course depends on your frame of reference. It might be an hour, an afternoon, or a month. This is just a matter of scale. Excellence requires effort and quality. There are no shortcuts. And to tell Dan Harrell’s story at its very best and full potential, on the scale I wanted to write it, I needed to be there when he arrived. Had I not, I wouldn’t have learned about the ghosts. I wouldn’t have heard Danny Boy. I would have missed so many wonderful details.
Had I not been there with Dan at 10 and 11 a.m. as he cleaned the locker rooms, and then as he went around and put little notes with shamrocks into the lockers of all the seniors, I never would have appreciated the significance or power of Mike Koller rolling down his waistband to reveal the shamrock he’d pinned inside. Had I not been there at 11 a.m. and seen him do this, and understood how it showed his affection for the students, his relationship with them, I wouldn’t have appreciated what I consider the best ending to any newspaper story I have written in my 37 years of journalism. Nothing could describe Dan’s impact on these students, his love for them and their love in return, better than that scene. This is showing, not telling. This is action speaking louder than words. This is putting in the time. This is loving your story. This is telling it to your keyboard first.
I knew when I saw Mike Koller roll down his waistband how I would end the story. The final question, actually, was where to begin. Not every narrative need begin at the beginning but in all honesty, I started this one at the beginning, with Dan arriving at dawn. My editor, Kathy Hacker, a fabulous editor and writer, read the piece and suggested we start with the anecdote about being in the bathroom. It was in the piece as originally written, but woven into the narrative much later. Kathy was of the opinion that this would be the most surprising way to start. Who expects a custodian to be a student, or a story about a custodian in a famous sports arena to start with his academics? I consented. The bathroom anecdote frames the story, allows me to give reader the context, and then I dive into the morning of the big game.
And finally, in the original draft of my story, I had one more line at the end. I had Dan going over to an empty stairwell collapsing into tears. Kathy suggested we cut it. I initially in my mind was aghast. No! How could you? But I was smart enough to consider it and trust her judgment on this one. The greatest gift an editor can give a writer is to consider every word with the same love, respect, and scrutiny. I decided in this case Kathy was right. Less is more. I cut it. The takeaway here is that the best editor-reporter relationships are collegial, cooperative. You work together to improve the story. You trust one another. You are a team.
I knew the paper loved the story. They ran it Sunday front page. I know readers loved it because I got so many emails. Dan heard from so many people. A few years ago, when I gave a talk on writing to Penn students, the professor, my friend Dick Polman, surprised me by inviting Dan to join me, to share his side of the experience with the students, to talk about being the subject of a story. That was fun.
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A Remarkable Friendship: Jack Lawlor and Mark Harris
This story went viral. A small story about a friendship was read all over the world, thousands and thousands of likes and shares on Facebook. The best read story on the newspaper website for days. Why? It wasn’t news. It was life. In writing about something so small – the story of a friendship – we underscore something so universal and affirming, the goodness of man.
I heard about this story from the public relations people at the hospital. I recreate the entire story. I saw none of this myself in real time.
I interviewed Mark and Jack at length, and then took their interviews and wrote a simple narrative. One important thing about writing narratives is it forces you to report a little differently. You have to be thinking about scenes. This helps me in the kinds of questions I want to ask. I wanted every detail I could get about Mark noticing Jack in line, about their first conversation by the elevator, about Mark visiting Jack in the hospital, about Jack going to the funeral of Mark’s sister. I wanted enough detail so I could paint a scene, let the reader see it in his mind’s eye. This is really a simple story about man at his best, reaching out, burying stereotypes and fears. It shows that often the best stories, the best things in life are authentic, unplanned, genuine – not contrived and manipulated. That is the beauty here.
This story also led to another great story. That is another important message, for this often happens. Mark kept a list of all the people he knew who had been murdered in his lifetime. It was 70 and counting – mostly by handguns, but some by stabbing. I only learned about this in talking with him after the story. A year later, I wrote another story. I included a photo of Mark’s list of his dead friends. Most were just street names, Bo-Peep, Shorty, Ajax. I’d get their real names, the police reports, and told a story.
Best stories give readers a chance to contribute and engage, to feel a lift. A clothing store owner in center city gave Mark his first suit after reading the story. He wanted to do something nice and he did.
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My favorite moment in this story, one I won’t forget, is watching Ann tow Yuri through the halls of Inglis House. This great scene and moment is the result of several rules in play: Spend the time; do stories in real time; show rather than tell; and finally, patience. Don’t be in a rush to use the best material right away. I think the scene is so powerful because I’ve taken the time to establish the relationship and let you understand how much each means to the other. When you get to this scene, it has more impact and power precisely because of its location and because of the set up.
I was covering aging issues at the time, and that beat also included long term care in all its forms. Inglis House was started in 1877 with all the best of intentions by a compassionate and liberal Philadelphia society. It is a beautiful old stone building in West Philadelphia, nothing like any of the buildings I grew up with in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. By the 1990s, Inglis House had evolved, now one of 8 long term residential facilities in America focused on people with spinal cord injuries. I had done another story there, about a couple that had fallen in love, Carol Seelaus and Nick Ide. Nick fell off a ladder and ended up at Inglis House. Carol The remained devoted, and I told their story. It was such an amazing story I considering including it in this book. Months later, talking with someone from Inglis House, I heard about Ann Sopp. And the moment I heard, my instinct told me to go meet her. I spent a day with Ann. Followed her around, listened to her stories. There was so much surprise, so much wonder. Even here against all odds she had found love and happiness. The resilience of the human spirit!
There is another remarkable but sad element to this story. Two weeks after I first arrived and had visited Ann a couple times, she died. She had become so fragile and frail she knew she could die at any time. She got pneumonia and died literally overnight. I thought of Ron Speer, my first editor, and his saying that good reporters are lucky. And I guess I was lucky. I had gotten to her in time to see and describe her beautiful life. My feature turned into an obituary, which ran on the front page, and which got an enormous response. In a way, my timing was perfect. I could give her the honor and dignity, celebrate her life as she deserved. I had given my absolute best to Yuri and Ann, and to readers, but as a writer must do, especially a newspaperman, I was on to the next story. I thought about Yuri often, and even kept in touch for a while, but the years rolled by. As I was thinking about writing this book, I was thinking about my favorite stories, and the story of Ann and Yuri surely was one. I realized 13 years had passed. I wondered what had become of Yuri. So I called him.
Only a couple months earlier, in March of 2014, had he finally stopped delivering the mail. He’d had a stroke, and his arms had gone paralyzed. He could no longer pull himself on the stretcher, no longer get around, not even feed himself. With this lack of mobility, his loneliness and depression got much worse. He clearly was losing his desire to live. On his dresser at Inglis House, where he had lived now for 34 years, was a picture of Yuri and his beloved Ann at a wedding of one of Yuri’s relatives. “One aide on her floor told me the spirit of this place died when Ann died,” he said. “She brought a special something to this home.” He said he thinks about her every day. Most people there who knew her have died or moved on to other jobs or retired. Everyone here now knows him only as George. Once in a great while, to his great surprise, he will hear somebody call, “Yuri.” He explained that Ann was Ukrainian and her mother told her that Yuri was a Ukrainian named and Ann always loved that name.
“My body’s breaking down,” Yuri said. He knows he doesn’t have too many more days, either. H had to go. His aide had to feed him. He could no longer hold a spoon or lift it.
I couldn’t help thinking, imagining Ann’s voice, saying, “Yuri, why didn’t you get into the back seat?” But I think now he couldn’t, because if he had, they never would have found one another. That would have been a tragedy
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WOODY WOLFE: THE MUSICIANARY
I met Woody recently for beer and a barbeque after he spent the day at children’s hospital in Philadelphia. I had more admiration than ever. Woody just continued to share one amazing story after another. How about this one: On the coming Saturday, he was going to be singing at a wedding. When the groom was nine, he had cancer, and was a patient at Geisinger Memorial Hospital in Danville, and Woody got to know him well, and sang to him often. The little boy survived, grew up, and became a pediatrician, and went to work back at the hospital where he was a patient. He loved Woody then, and loves him today, and asked Woody to sing at his wedding.
Woody has sung at more than 500 funerals, often 40 or 50 a year, but these days he’s singing at weddings, too, because the children survive and grow up, and love him.
He travels the country. He sings often to children in a hospital in Phoenix, and has for years, attending a camp there every year. Many years ago, he got close with a little girl who was sick. He saw ever for a few years, every time he went back. The years rolled by, and the other day, he was in the cardiac unit at Childrens Hospital in Philadelphia, and this young woman shouted out his name. He thought he recognized her, but wasn’t sure. She was an adult now. She was crying, and he was crying, and they embraced. And she explained that she was an intern on the Child Life team, and she explained to her colleagues that Woody had sung to her when she was sick in Phoenix many years ago.
And finally, a third story. Woody turned 60 a few years ago and put on Facebook that he was having a party in Danville and was going to sing in the park and invited all his friends to come. Hundreds showed, including many children who had survived their illness, and many parents of children who had not, but who loved Woody and wanted to celebrate with him. He feels like he is among the most blessed people on Earth. He didn’t have two dollars, literally in his wallet, but it is not money that makes a man truly rich.
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From The Pulitzer Series: Mrs Moore
As I said earlier, this story was a milestone for me. The entire Pulitzer series was, truthfully, and in the book I include just one story of five. All can be read on the Pulitzer website. I have two sides of my brain – the side that loves human interest and storytelling, and the side that loves to grapple with complex issues and explain them. I often wrestled with the two, feeling I had to decide – sweet stories or serious stories, human issue stories or issue stories. I would get frustrated, feeling I had to pick. My parents were funny. My mother always loved the human interest, but my father never much cared for them. He wanted substance, fact. When I did these stories, I knew I had struck gold. I once made a graph, my mom and dad graph. At the end of one axis was a story on a man who fed stray cats. At the end of the other axis was health policy. The goal was to be what these stories were – far out on both axes. This story had human interest and the qualities my mother loved. But it also included exposition, context, information about a crucial national issue.
Mrs. Moore was just an ordinary American. But her story reflected a national issue – trying to improve how we die in America – and also highlighted one new and critical piece of that struggle: the decision to let somebody die in the intensive care unit. I wrote the story basically in small blocks, so the reader and I can both keep our bearings, and I took short breaks from the narrative flow to provide tight blocks of information about the issue. I looked at the SUPPORT study, at the costs of care. In each of these subsequent stories in the series, I do the same thing.
I think also these stories were the first times I really understood the concept of narrative. Previously, I had always written stories instinctively. I just love human interest. But in this series, I tried to raise a question, a tension, in the first seven inches. In this story, would Mrs. Moore let her husband die? What was the right thing to do? And I tell a story that ultimately answers that question. These are not contrived questions. They are genuine, real, universal questions. In the second story in the series, I ask how would this hospice social worker help this man die? It is a question she asked as she approached his front door for the first time. A question she and thousands of other hospice social workers had asked themselves hundreds of times. And by the end of the story, which discusses the rise of hospice and the issues involved, I show the reader exactly how the social worker did help the man die. I answered the question. So in this series not only did I understand the importance of marrying context and story, but I really developed using the narrative form as a writer. For the first time in my life I had incredible conversations with an editor, Don Drake, about scenes, their importance and power, and how to slow down a moment, draw it out. Don was an invaluable help to me. He taught me so much about writing, scene, planning, and patience. Don had an office, and he’d shut the door, and time would slow way down. We’d discuss scenes, and issues. I loved it. I grew in so many ways in this series, learned so much – and all this was months before I won any prize.
I also learned to be ruthless with myself. When I turned these stories in, the first thing Don said to me after reading them was this: “I’ve learned never to take the Vitez out of Vitez.” I understood this to mean that he understood I had a voice, a tone, a subtly and sensibility, and he simply couldn’t just rewrite. He understood the craft and voice that went into these stories. I loved hearing this from him. I knew he “got” me and cared as much about the stories as I did. This would become a benchmark by which I would judge all future editors – not so much for recognizing my style or being careful about changing it, but for caring deeply about the work. This is not to say that Don wasn’t ruthless, which I also came to appreciate. In my story with Mrs. Moore, for instance, I had additional great scenes from the ICU, powerful amazing scenes. And he would cut them right out. Just delete them. Oh, the pain! When I whined, he explained that they were repetitive. They made the same point as a previous or even better scene. They only diluted and diminished the overall work, and they had to go. Years later, I can’t remember at all what he tossed. I know he was right. He taught me and helped me grow to be much tougher on myself. All valuable lessons.
So many of my rules of reporting and writing were crystalized in this series. I remember sitting on the floor in a hallway and just writing longhand about scenes I had just observed; the moments were so powerful, so amazing, I didn’t want to wait. The words were pouring out of my fingertips. The waiting room was full and there was no seat. I didn’t want to wait until I got back home or to the office to write. So I sat in a hallway and scribbled. I capture the power first on paper, and while it was so fresh and vivid. I would revise and check facts and cut and improve later. And these were written in July even though the series didn’t run until November. Thank god I hadn’t waited to write them. I learned to spend the time on these stories, and only by spending time would I get the best details and quotes and scenes. I learned to tell it to my keyboard first, and to write while it was fresh.
And the last and most important lesson I will share with you is trust. The hospital let me hang out in the intensive care unit, but with two conditions. I could only talk with patient families if the attending physician or charge nurse first introduced me, and I couldn’t write about anybody unless they signed a consent form, giving the hospital permission to release information about them. I saw Mrs. Moore and Ron, and asked to be introduced. Mrs. Moore was in crisis. She was praying at the bedside of her critically ill husband, hoping with all her heart he would survive. And here came a reporter hoping to write about her experience, whatever that would prove to be. Why would she, would anyone, give me a moment’s thought at such a critical time? Would you? I had to build a relationship with her and with Mrs. Stephano and with everyone in this series. I did it by being sincere, by being patient, by being genuine, by being respectful. April Saul was the photographer assigned to the series. She saw great scenes and great emotion and wanted to immediately start taking pictures. And who could blame her! She urged me to get Mrs. Moore to sign the consent form. I didn’t feel I had built up a relationship yet with Mrs. Moore. I felt if I troubled her with my needs – getting a form signed – I would only be adding to her burdens and troubles. Signing a form would force her to think about a deep and intimate story about her running in the newspaper, about her being photographed weeping. I felt she wouldn’t want to commit to this yet and would in her sweet and kind way say no thank you. I am cautious and conservative and I suppose protective and selfish. I could keep taking notes. There was no immediate rush from a reporting standpoint to get her to sign. I wanted to wait, figuring the longer I waited, the better my chances of getting her to sign would be. April didn’t want to take pictures – said the hospital wouldn’t let her take pictures – until Mrs. Moore signed the form. I explained the predicament to Don Drake. He was brilliant! Tell Mrs. Moore, he advised, the form is meaningless, a formality. The hospital requires her to sign it in order for April to take pictures, but Mrs. Moore can back out of the story, regardless of what she signed, up until the day before the story runs in the newspaper. Don said give her all the control. She has it anyway, he explained. Form or no form, if she didn’t want a story, or changed her mind, we would honor her wishes. And he stressed that as she got to know me, as she spent more time with me, as she saw my work ethic, her trust would only grow. And this was great advice and worked out perfectly. She signed, April shot, and her trust in us both grew over the three weeks we followed her story in the ICU.
One last anecdote about this: There are no pictures of Mrs. Stephano because she didn’t feel comfortable signing the form, or being identified in the story. I was only going to refer to her as the woman in room 918, the room next door. But a week before my story ran, four months after the death of her husband, she called me. I had given her my business card. She asked me if I was still planning to write a story, and if I still would like to use her name and her husband’s name. She explained that a day earlier, at lunchtime, she had finished the last mayonnaise jar she and her husband would ever share. She had wept for hours. But somehow, after, she felt better about things. She had been thinking about me and decided if I wanted to use her name, and her husband’s name, in my story it was fine.
* * *
Crystal's Story: Crystal Brown
In 30 years at the Inquirer, this was the hardest story to get published. But it is one of my favorites and one I am most proud of. Crystal had never told anyone the whole story of what had happened to her. She had kept it inside for all those years. Even though she’d gone to court, she’d kept much of this sordid story secret. I learned about Crystal innocently enough. Tom Ferrick, our metro columnist, got a call from a priest he knew, Father Ed, who worked at the poorest parish in the city, St. Martin De Porres at 22nd and Lehigh. Tom Ferrick knew I liked sweet stories, and passed this off to me, thinking it the ultimate in sweet stories. In short, Father Ed said he knew a woman who needed a van for her disabled kids. Father Ed was hoping if we wrote a story about her, for the holidays, perhaps readers would help donate enough money for her to get this van. He didn’t know the full story, why the children were disabled. Crystal didn’t even go to church, but her third child, who was healthy, Jasmine, went to the parish school. I felt a little uneasy at the start. My intention always has to be just telling a good story, not getting a home or a van or money for someone. But I thought it could make a sweet Christmas story and if I could tell this woman's story, lift her up, that would be a worthy ambition. So I called Crystal and asked to come interview her. She lived in a rowhouse subsidized by the Philadelphia Housing Authority in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of North Philadelphia. When I walked in, her two teenage children were sitting in the living room in wheelchairs. I remember Chris was drawing. Her other two children were in the living room as well, with the family dog, whom Crystal brilliantly had named D. O. G. She pronounced it Deeohgee, and as slow as I am, it took me weeks to figure out the name of the dog was the word dog spelled out. Anyway, at one point early in our first interview, I asked her innocently enough why her kids were disabled – to me an obvious question – and she began to tell me about the abuse. I felt like I was in a Faulkner novel from a century earlier, not in Philadelphia in 2007. She was a furnace of energy, emotion and passion, and she talked so fast and bounced from topic to topic because she had so much to say. Before I realized it, I’d been at her house almost three hours.
I left her house thinking, I have to tell her story. It took me a while to figure out what was the story – her being abused, her mother not believing her, her going on her own to court to find proof and to force the court and the world to recognize what her own father had done to her. And her primary motivation was not revenge or justice even though both were so important. She needed help for her children, and she was going to make her father pay, literally, and truly, in every way. So I had never written a story like this, never read a story like this in a newspaper. Do I just tell it? Do I just treat it as I would any other story? Ultimately, that’s all I knew how to do.
I am a great believer in identifying people in stories. I thought this story was amazing, and important, but I wanted to identify Crystal, and that meant her kids would be identified as well, whether I named them or not. Everyone on earth those children knew also knew their mother and knew Crystal was their mother. I took great pains over the next several weeks, as I worked on this story, to make sure Crystal and her kids understood that this would be read by the whole city. This caused me great anxiety. I wanted to tell her story but I didn’t want to harm her children. They were teenagers. I went to great pains to make them understand that the whole world would know the truth. They understood what I was asking and they consented. I felt they were not under pressure from me, and they understood how important it was to their mother that the story come out. I was still uneasy about it, for fear of humiliating them, but I also thought there was no way I could harm them any more than their father/grandfather already had. That's what Crystal told me. She had no hesitation. And I know they are the most important thing in the world to her. I not only wanted them to understand the potential impact of the story, but I felt it important to interview them, find out what they knew, when they learned about it, how they felt. And I did talk to them about it. I was informal, honest, respectful, direct. They both understood what had happened, but both had learned the truth only recently. Crystal had only told them the whole story around the time she told me. They both understood and supported the story, names and all. They understood how important it was to their mother, and that was important to them.
Another extremely difficult interview was with Crystal’s mother. I had to get her side of the story. It took me months to convince her to speak with me. But finally she did, knowing it was so important to her daughter. Her answer to me was almost circular. Of course she believed her daughter and of course she didn’t. Both were true. I probably could have done so much more with these interviews, explored these points so much more. But I did my best at the time.
Crystal took me into the courthouse with her, requested her court file, and then left me there to read it. I remember spending all day at a table in the clerk’s office, just reading with wonder. What strength and courage this woman must have had to take on her father like that. The court records were such a valuable reporting tool, adding so much credibility and detail to the story. The interview with the doctor at Children’s Hospital about the incest and disease was also so important to adding context and credibility.
One of the biggest regrets of my career is that I didn’t interview her father. I wanted to go see him in person, just walk into his store. Crystal repeatedly warned me not to. She was sure he would shoot me dead. I feel in the end I was cowardly. I took her at her word. I called him on the phone twice, and both times he hung up. I wrote him, but that also got me nowhere. I should have walked in and confronted him. I regret that I did not. Crystal is convinced that he willed himself to death knowing the story was coming out. And he died only a couple months after I began reporting the story, before it was published.
The only thing I was unhappy about with the story was the ending. I wish there had been more of a resolution. I wish I could have been more positive or hopeful. But the truth is what it is. She was still struggling, and I needed to reflect that. This is a story that would go on for years, for life, frankly. There was no clear, simple or obvious ending point.
And the story continues. I caught up with Crystal not long ago, eight years after my original story, to write a sequel.
* * *
A Life in Tune, Charlie Birnbaum
A few other things about this story are worth sharing. First, I just knew after hearing him play in that house on Oriental Avenue that this is where I wanted to start and end the story. This was a sacred place to him. My decision was based on experience and instinct. In all fairness and full disclosure, it was my editor, Kathy Hacker, who added in the phrase, “for the lengthening shadows.” I loved that image and it was so true. Kathy was brilliant and unrivaled in her talent. Second, the story is a balance of recreating past events through reporting and describing Charlie in real time through observation. I toggle back and forth between past and present, trying to create a seamless narrative. Third, I write the story in blocks, in sections. I think this helps me keep the story focused and moving along, and also makes it easier on the reader. One of my fundamental rules is never allow the reader to lose his bearings. At all times in a story the reader should understand the time and place. Avoiding confusion requires a conscientious effort by the writer, extra care. A confused reader is often the result of a lazy writer, and confusion is an invitation to the reader to walk away, to turn the page.
Finally, one story often leads to another. Out reporting one story, you hear about another. Or, in some cases, the people you write about deserve follow up stories years later. That is the case with Charlie.
* * *
The Nipple Man: Vinnie Myers
What I love best about this story is that it is so American. Here is a guy, a soldier, who becomes a tattoo artist quite by accident and circumstance, and then even more surprising finds a way to make his life immensely meaningful and to help thousands of women by tattooing nipples. You just never know in this land of opportunity. Vinnie followed his passion and look where it took him.
This story puts into practice so many of my rules of writing and reporting. When the doctor at breastcancer.org was telling me about Vinnie, a nipple artist, I took her very seriously. I had no idea just how good this story would be. I was curious, an open mind. I felt there was only one way to do this story right, to be there, to do a narrative, to follow a woman in real time through the process. I felt it was important to put readers in the room and let them see this man does his magic and the impact he has. Don’t tell. Show. I didn’t want to go down and interview Vinnie until I knew he had some patients who would let me observe and follow them through the process.
It was another matter, by the way, convincing the newspaper to run a photograph of one of his tattooed nipples. The editors initially had a conservative reaction – a nipple is inappropriate for a newspaper. They didn’t oppose the story at all, though I think some of the top editors raised an eyebrow when they saw it on the news budget. Nipple artist? I knew from the beginning and so did our photographer, Chip Fox, that any photos would have to be tasteful. But one of the beautiful things about the story is its surprising nature, and the joy that the finished tattoo brought women. How could we not show readers what Vinnie had created? Done right, a close shot of the finished nipple tattoo, was essential. And I felt there was nothing sexual about this, nothing junior high or offensive. I felt there was a tasteful way to do it, and finally after a big meeting, the editor of the paper agreed. He is old school and nipples under any circumstance are going to make him uncomfortable. But he is a pro and after hearing from everyone he understood and made the right call. And readers were overwhelmingly glad we did. I received many, many calls from women who wanted to contact Vinnie after my story.
In reporting, I followed Vinnie through the treatment of one patient. I actually hung around for much of the day, and observed a couple more patients, but decided to focus the story on just one woman. I just feel one done well is more powerful. Traditional journalism might argue that three examples adds to the credibility. But by the sheer numbers he helps, and the experts I had quoted, his credibility wasn’t in doubt. The best way to show his work, and it’s impact, was one case up close. I tried to be a fly on the wall, so to speak. To stand quietly in his work area, watching, listening. The best material is what I observed, the small details and the quotes between artist and subject.
I did interviews with Vinnie before and after the procedure, and I interviewed the woman in more detail after she was finished, to get more of her backstory.
In writing the piece, the structure is a pretty basic narrative, she comes, she gets the tattoo, she leaves. But I take detours from the narrative and weave in Vinnie’s past as an artist, how he got into nipple tattooing and gained respect.
I couldn’t resist the anecdote about Vinnie taking his shirt off in front of the women at the Baltimore waterfront restaurant. I thought it really added to the context of the story. The irony and contrast was too great – he exposes himself in front of them, feels just a fraction of the discomfort they felt all through their cancer treatment and beyond.
It was also important to have the independent voices, the experts, from Johns Hopkins and the oncologist from breastcancer.org. They, along with the patients, give credibility. This is vital, but supplemental. Seeing the magic happen, the narrative, is what gives this story the pop and power. I also feel readers are very interested craft, in how things work, and I wanted to explain carefully how Vinnie does his tattoos. For instance, I found it interesting – but when you think about it, totally understandable – that two nipples are actually much easier than just one.
A year later, the New York Times did a story. Vinnie’s daughter had joined him, and his business was bigger and busier than ever. I wrote to congratulate him. His reply:
“Michael, Hey man... So good to hear from you. Seems funny how big this little thing has gotten... how something so small can mean so much to people... I am truly blessed to be able to offer it to them.
I have to again thank you for writing your fabulous piece... it really jump started things and helped me get the exposure I am getting... THANK YOU!
Keep up the great work I (and so many others) love reading your stuff!
If there is anything I can every do for you... please do not hesitate to ask!
Many thanks again.... Vinnie.”
* * *
On his Own Two Legs: Kevin McCloskey
I was working Memorial Day – everyone at a struggling newspaper still pitched in on weekends and holidays. I was assigned to cover the 1 p.m. reopening of the renovated Vietnam Memorial in Philadelphia. It was a beautiful day, so I left early and decided to walk rather than cab.
On my way, I passed the Korean War Memorial, where a different Memorial Day ceremony was underway. It started at noon. Many of the city’s dignitaries would attend this one, and then the Vietnam Memorial service an hour later. I stopped just as Kevin McCloskey was being introduced. I was struck first by his appearance. There he was, standing at a podium on his two prosthetic legs, in shorts with
sunglasses and baseball hat, as normal and comfortable as could be. He began by saying, “Everybody I know is down the Shore, but I wanted to be here today.” I could related. Everybody I kne was down the Shore, too! He was everyman. And then he said, “I went to North Catholic (high school), so I’m not very good at this,” referring to public speaking. He seemed so real, so comfortable. His talk was very short, but powerful. He thanked the city — his family and friends and community — for bringing him back, for supporting him and also for toughening him up. Their strength was his strength. Their expectation was his to meet.
The master of ceremonies, a local judge who also runs the city’s veterans court and who had asked Kevin to speak, then called out Kevin’s fiancé, Bridget McGeehan. The whole crowd turned its gaze to her, a beauty. The judge then urged everyone to patronize the two bars where Kevin bartended. The whole exchange was only about 5 to 7 minutes. But I knew right away. This was a great story.
Over the previous year, I’d written several stories about drug addiction, and much of my focus had been on veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars. So many had gotten addicted to heroin after first getting hooked on painkillers prescribed by military doctors. They also suffered intensely from PTSD. I spent lots of time with one veteran so disturbed he slept with his Glock holstered to his hip, and went to ballroom dancing class with his wife, as he waltzed around the room, he was always checking the doors for terrorists. I had been reading along with everyone else about the immense troubles with the Veterans Affairs Administration, failing to treat veterans in a timely fashion, failing to give them the counseling and treatments they needed. The hundreds of thousands of troubled veterans captured the headlines. Kevin got me to thinking. What does a good recovery and reentry look like? What struck me as so extraordinary was how well adjusted he seemed to be and how ordinary his life was, ordinary in a good way. He had two legs blown off on a mountain in Afghanistan and here he was going down the Shore on summer days, golfing, getting married, tending bar. Standing out there in the sun, I had a flash. I should profile Kevin; explain to readers how he got here, how he got back to a relatively normal life. I could be constructive, could help readers see and understand what success looks like, and I could also dignify his journey, his experience. Yes, there was horrible tragedy here. But he the love and friendship and resilience and support that led to this recovery showed humanity at its very best.
One of my most loyal readers once distilled the essence of my work into six words: “Good things that follow bad things.” And this certainly fits that description.
The crowd was too big and I had to move on to the Vietnam Memorial for my daily story, so I didn’t meet them that afternoon.
That evening, I wrote Kevin and Bridget a Facebook message, and explained what I had in mind. I’m not sure they really understood, but they agreed to meet with me. The takeaway message here is twofold: 1) you must trust your instincts and 2) you must also always be curious, and view the world as a treasure chest of stories, and be prepared for one to emerge at any time. If you’re not looking, you won’t see.
My first choice is always to write what I call a narrative profile. In this case, find something Kevin was passionate about and observe him doing it. Even better, find a challenge he was trying to overcome or a goal he was trying to pursue and follow him in real time. Use that drama as my narrative structure and work in the profile information, the backstory. But as I spoke with Kevin, as I did one long interview and then another, I realized the only great goal he was pursuing was just getting along, living, putting together a routine, and getting better at golf. I did go golfing with him for a day, but didn’t feel it worked as a drama. In retrospect, I should have pushed harder to spend an entire day with him – see him dress in the morning, put on his legs, follow him through a day of golf, a shift at the bar, then back home and taking off his legs. That would have been optimum. I see that now clearly. He would let me do that NOW, I’m sure. But at the time I wanted to write this, I don’t think I had earned sufficient trust, achieved a sufficient comfort level with him for him to consent to that. I never asked, specifically, if I could see him put on and take off his prosthetics. I think I would have come off as disrespectful. And I’m thinking he would have declined. I just didn’t feel I had earned enough trust to ask. But perhaps I should have spent more time until I developed that trust, and could get the access I wanted. But I don’t think I realized this was the optimum way to do the story at the time, or I wasn’t patient enough. I just wanted to do the story. My expectations weren’t high enough. And that is on me. Not to say this isn’t a good story. It went viral and got thousands of Facebook likes and had thousands upon thousands of readers.
And it did a world of good for Kevin, led to many speaking engagements. He was invited to throw out the first pitch at a Phillies game, received a team jersey at a Flyers hockey game, was given a car at halftime of an Eagles football game. The story is more than just a profile. There is a narrative component to it, a recounting of his journey from shortly before he joins the Army to the present. It served my original purpose – showing readers what a good reentry looks like, and trying to explain to them why he was able to achieve it. But it could have been better!
When I heard Bridget tell me he first kissed her under the boardwalk, I knew that’s where I wanted to start the story. It just seemed so intimate and tender and for people in the Philadelphia region, so universal. Virtually everyone in the region has been on that boardwalk at some point in life. And how many of us have been young and in love on the boardwalk? The scene also set the exact tone for the story that I wanted. I was even more certain this is where I wanted to start when I learned that he proposed marriage to her under the boardwalk in the very same spot, practicing how to get down on one knee with his two prosthetic legs. In the tragedy of daily journalism, my original story was too long, and I had to cut that scene from the final draft. Made me sad but my profession is an imperfect one. I’m glad I got to add it in the postscript in the book.
Here, again, is the deleted passage:
In February of this year, they went to North Wildwood for Leprechaun Leap, a dash into the sea. They weren’t going to jump into the ocean, they weren’t that crazy. But for reasons she couldn’t understand he insisted she get all dressed up.
“We were walking down the boardwalk,” she recalled. “It was raining and cold. I’m so mad. ‘Why are we doing this?’ We get to Ed’s Funcade, and he says ‘Let’s go under the boardwalk.’ ”
She was swept away as she began to comprehend.
He got down on one knee, a gesture he’d been practicing for months. She said Yes. Suddenly, friends, family and a photographer appeared.
I also thought it was important in this story to have Bridget’s voice, to have her explain to readers how and when she fell in love with him, to talk about their relationship. What I didn’t include — again, simply not enough room — was that her father asked her, as only a father can, if she fully understood what she was undertaking by marrying Kevin. I loved the fatherly concern, the direct conversation. But I thought it was clear that she well understood what she was undertaking, so in making hard decisions about what to cut, I deleted the exchange between Bridget and her father. I didn’t feel too badly that exchange was lost.
I know how important pictures are to my stories, and I suggested to the photographer a portrait of the two of them on their front step, which is what he shot. I wanted their two dogs in the photo — truly the all American family and photo _ the couple and the flag and the slobbering mastiff and feisty terrier. But the photographer preferred the photo without the dogs, and he’s the professional _ and the photo that ran with the story was sensational.
One last thing. For the kind of stories I like write, I need to ask deeply personal questions without giving offense. Kevin spent a couple years in his basement on the road to recovery. These were dark days for him. I asked Kevin’s mother to talk about those days, that transition, and get her explanation of how he pulled himself out of them. For readers to really appreciate how well he’s doing, I needed to show how bleak it was and how far he’d come. His mother preferred to speak over the phone. She didn’t want to meet in person. And the phone is not the right medium for sensitive interviews. I think she didn’t know what to make of me or my questions, for a variety of reasons, all fair and reasonable, was only willing to open up so much. I would have liked more details from her. She saw Kevin like nobody else. Again, perhaps I should have been more persistent, more patient. But given the circumstances and time available, I think she went as far as she was prepared to go. I guess my point is to show that not even Willie Mays batted 1,000 and I certainly don’t. But we do the best we can with each individual story within the time and space constraints we face. Strive for perfection but work with the material that you have. I want to thank Kevin’s mother and everyone involved in this story for trusting me.
In closing, instead of complaining about working a holiday, keep your eyes open. You might find gold.
* * *
The Road Trip Ritual: Al, Betsy and Maggie Lucas
This story was a pure romp, one of my favorites. The subject of the story is so simple and ordinary and far from any headline – parents taking a trip to see their daughter play basketball. But every sports parent, every parent, could relate. It provided me an opportunity to celebrate life. There is nothing magical in the technique. It is a tightly focused narrative. The journey is small – to see a basketball game. But the story is epic – parental love and sacrifice.
My favorite moment in the entire story is when Maggie emerges from the locker room and notices her grandmother’s sneakers and says: “MomMom. Nike Frees. Oh, my gosh, I'm so proud of you right now.” Why is that a great quote? It is a very small, simple exchange, but so effective. To me, this little exchange – her noticing the sneakers and commenting on them – does so much more than just convey a fact or information. The moment gives a sense of Maggie’s personality, of her light heart, spirit and humor. It helps the reader understand the relationship between Maggie and her grandmother. The contrast is so revealing about Maggie’s personality and character. One moment Maggie is the superstar hoops player and literally the next she is a loving and playful granddaughter. She is proud of her grandmother, rather than the other way around! A telling detail is one that works on multiple levels, conveying much more than the literal information. To me, this is a classic example. Also important to note: the observation and comment by Maggie wouldn’t be as powerful, wouldn’t succeed, without the proper set up, or context. The reader has gotten to know Maggie and her family through the course of the story, making this small moment all the more effective. That little exchange not only makes us smile and laugh and feel good, but it tells us so much.
The voice from the rafters – the voice of God, telling Al Lucas when he wears number 33 he better not miss – this is another telling detail and valuable moment. Even the custodian loves Maggie, and feels close enough to her that he can joke with her father. Also the custodian’s comment gives us a sense just how much she is adored at Penn State and just how exceptional her talent is perceived to be by the masses. All this is illustrated in one little exchange. I love these jewels, and I feel confident the reader does as well. You only get them by putting in the time, by opening your eyes, by caring.
I got the story idea from a friend and architect, Jim Rowe, who is also good friends with Bob Nals, for whom Betsy worked. My architect friend got to know Betsy, and heard about the road trips and superstitions. He was telling me about them one day and I thought it would make a great story. I hopped in the backseat to the next game. You find the best stories from being rooted in the world, from being willing to see them and open to finding them. You have to have a sense of wonder.
The backbone of good writing is good reporting. When I am working on a story, the moment I love most is when I’ve reported long and hard and I feel great material is just pouring from my fingertips. I can’t wait to sit down to the keyboard and write. Students often ask me to define a great detail, or to tell them how I know a great detail when I see one. A great detail will do more than just convey a fact or information. It will give a sense of personality, of humor. It will help you understand relationships. It will surprise. It will provide layers of understanding for the reader. Maggie commenting on her grandmother’s shoes conveys their closeness and the nature of their relationship. Telling details are enormously efficient. In just a few words the reader learns so much.
I had never met Maggie before this night. Her parents told me the anecdote in the ride to Penn State about her never wearing long pants until 7th grade. Believe it or not, and it may sound silly now, but I was nervous asking Maggie about this moment because I didn’t want to embarrass her or upset her. She was an all American, headed for the WNBA, and I wasn’t sure how she’d react to a reporter she had only just met asking her about what could be perceived as a very embarrassing story from many years ago. I didn’t want to upset the dynamic of the night, but I wanted to know the answer! So I asked. I wasn’t sure I’d have another chance. Whether you are asking the president about a national security question, or Maggie Lucas about short pants, you can’t be afraid to ask the question. Ask with respect, but ask. The result in this case was a strike of gold. I asked Maggie why she always wore shorts, and she told me because she never knew when there might be an opportunity to shoot. Genius. The reader gets a true sense of how hard she worked and how motivated she was and her state of mind in 7th grade!
Proving another of my rules, the best material in this story comes from just listening and observing and being along for the ride. The superstitions of the parents might seem a little extreme or eccentric for sure, but every parent and every sports lover has them to one degree or another. We can all relate, and that’s part of the beauty. Normally hardworking and ordinary people become crazy superstitious parents on game days. It’s a beautiful thing. I also tried hard to create images in the mind’s eye – Maggie shooting hoops in the car headlights, as her mother sits there in pajamas. One of the highlights for me after this story ran was the note I received from Maggie’s grandmother, who was so pleased and touched. No one was more amazed at what I created than Al Lucas, who was with me the whole time. That was very satisfying for me. Not only did he love the story, but he saw how I took the raw material, our night together, and spun it into a story. Once you’ve been through it, as the subject of a story, you can appreciate the creativity and effort that goes into a narrative like this.
Maggie, by the way, finished out her fabulous career, and now is playing professional basketball in the WNBA.
* * *
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
This is the story of Jim Way, who went to the nursing home every day to feed his sick wife. I still get enormous response to this story. Here is an email I just received this week, August 29, 2016:
For nearly 20 years, I have kept a copy of your Valentines Day story about Jim and Wynne Way, mostly because I have collected good writing for many years. But I am about to teach a college class in feature writing and I want to tell you that I plan to start the first class next week by reading the beginning of this story. As a long time journalist, I know how hard it is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Reporters often get assignments to find a way to mark what they view as a boring holiday or anniversary and in the process fail to see the beauty of the human spirit. You found that in the Ways and shared it with us.
Mike wanted to know how I found the story, and here is what I told him:
So, I covered aging issues for the newspaper.
The marketing person for Saunders House, a long term care facility, had been in touch and encouraged me to come by; she wanted to tell me all about the place and the new programs they had. I'm not sure why I went. I think it was a big place and on my beat and I thought it would be a good idea to see it and I had time. I think also she had been helpful to me on a previous story of some kind, maybe a news story, and I knew she was a quality person. Anyway, we are walking around, and she says, "Hi, Jim" to this man who walks by. I asked who he was. "Oh, that's Jim Way. He comes every day to feed his wife, and has for years. People here all love him." This of course was not the story she had in mind when she invited me. People just don't see stories in the every day small and universal moments. I met him, I spoke with him, I thought it would be a great story for Valentine's Day which was a couple weeks away, and I came back to do the story. It would have been a great story any day, and every day. Just so happened I met him in early February. I met him a little earlier than usual one morning and interviewed him, and then I followed him through his daily ritual. I wrote it as a daily.
I still see him spooning that glob, kissing her messy face. If that is not love than nothing is.
Another great rule of journalism is that one good story leads to another. Wynne died in 1999, and Jim died just a few months later. This prompted me to explore and write another story about dying of a broken heart. There has actually been some scholarly research on this, and there are so many anecdotal examples.
* * *
HEALING A HEARTACHE: BARNEY JOSEPHS AND MARY SILVERS
This is an old favorite, early on in my narrative development. I heard about this story from an editor at the paper, who was good friends with Mary’s grandson. He thought this story would be perfect for me. I could have just visited Mary and Barney, and interviewed their children over the phone, and written a fine story. But I knew I wanted to go out on a date. This is a risky proposition when the man is 100 and the woman is 97. Even waiting two weeks is enormously risky. But I did.
The story is narrowly focused – the date. But by keeping the narrow focus, by telling a simple story, I can illustrate and say so much. This is a portrait of old age.
When you are reporting a story, especially a narrative, you are always thinking about how you will write the story. You think about the writing as you do the reporting. A narrative need not always start at the beginning, but when Reta showed up and was castigated by Mary for lacking makeup, at age 70, I knew at that moment I had my first paragraph. The scene was too priceless, too universal – showing that the relationship between mother and daughter never changes. It worked because the rest of the narrative just followed easily along. And it worked because it was such a beautiful and surprising moment. It signaled to the reader that this was something special. I listened and I observed. I stayed out of the way. And I struck gold.
Again, some of the most powerful details are subtle and small. Some of the most powerful quotes are nothing special when taken out of their context. She dreads that he will have steps. The example of chivalry at their age is a gentleman opening a packet of butter for a lady.
I put in the time. I got my best material from observing and listening. I loved my story. I worked hard to make every word tell _ something I’ve gotten better at since I wrote this story. I created images – you can see him opening that butter packet. You can imagine her walking up the steps and him waiting at the top. I seamlessly tried to weave in back story – their old courtship, Barney meeting the cousin on the boardwalk, Barney calling Mary after 75 years – with the real time narrative of the date. I wrote with confidence and control because I had good material.
I could have called up aging experts and gotten quotes about the importance of relationships and meaning and friendship in old age. I could have included demographic information about living to 100 or how many marriages last half a century. I could have found exposition to add. But less is more. Spare is better. This was not news, this was life. This was not a trend story, and I didn’t try to make it one. Readers that day got a wonderful, affirming and surprising little slice of life.
Mary was in the hospital the day the story ran, and showed it to all her nurses and doctors. Her family said the story revived her, and she came out of the hospital and lived a few more years. She and Barney are long gone now, but the story is still framed in Reta’s house, and still a very fond memory for me.