CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Texas columnist David Lieber remembers his friend Wil Haygood's time at The Charleston Gazette.
"Nobody believed in him," he said.
At least, he thought, nobody believed in Wil Haygood very much.
Lieber and Haygood worked together at the Gazette in the early 1980s. Lieber had the Statehouse beat. Haygood edited articles on the copy desk, back when the Gazette was a bustling, noisy, smoke-filled place instead of a relatively sedate office with quirky heating.
Haygood, 58, has gone a long way since his days on the copy desk. He's a reporter for The Washington Post, has written several books and has had the kind of career many writers dream of. He's been on presidential campaign trails, interviewed major celebrities and done a tour or two as a foreign correspondent.
In October, he adds another accolade to his résumé: One of his articles has become the basis of a major motion picture.
The film, "The Butler," starring Forrest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, is scheduled for an Oct. 18 release. Based on Haygood's story about White House servant Eugene Allen, it's already seen as a possible Oscar contender.
Before the writing
Haygood is, of course, delighted the story he wrote has done so well. It's a crowning achievement, made more remarkable by the fact Haygood never intended to be a writer.
"I really wanted to be a basketball player," he said.
But growing up poor in a Columbus, Ohio, housing project, he had to scramble just to get to play. The coach at Heath High School told him he probably wouldn't even make the team.
"So I bused myself to Franklin Heights High School," he said.
It was across town, and he had to leave before dawn each morning just to catch the bus, but he got to play varsity basketball.
"And I never missed a day of school."
Professional sports might have never been his future, but neither was journalism. He studied urban planning and urban studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
"I knew no journalists," he said. "I knew no writers and had no connections to that world."
He'd always done pretty well in English classes though.
After graduation, he returned to Columbus, worked different jobs, including a seven-month stint at the Columbus Call and Post, a small weekly paper. He also got involved with community theater, which he loved.
The job at the Call and Post was a good experience, but it paid poorly. After seven months, he quit the paper and decided to go to New York to try and make it as an actor.
Broadway, however, was elusive. Instead, he saw a lot of plays, went to the movies and washed dishes to make a living.
"I guess I wasn't ferocious enough with my acting," he said.
Coming to Charleston
Haygood tried retail and got into an executive training program at Macy's, but management wasn't impressed. He was told his days on the job were numbered.
While on the way home from the store one night, he picked up a copy of The New York Times and read an article about Gazette Publisher W.E. "Ned" Chilton. Chilton had been awarded the Colby College Elijah Lovejoy Award for courage and integrity in journalism.
Chilton was a crusader, Haygood said.
"He stood up to the Ku Klux Klan."
Haygood was impressed. Scrounging up a typewriter, he typed a letter to the publisher, telling Chilton he was the kind of man he wanted to work for.
Don Marsh, then editor at the Gazette, wrote back, telling Haywood the Gazette didn't think he had enough experience to walk into a newsroom as a reporter, but maybe it could use him on the copy desk.
"So I hopped a Trailways bus and came to Charleston," he said.
Haygood tested for the job, then went home to Columbus. Four weeks later, Marsh called and offered him a job.
Dave Lieber remembered meeting Haygood in 1982 when they were both relatively new to the job and struggling.
"So this guy comes up to me, wearing those tortoiseshell glasses and a bowtie. He says to me, 'I've been reading your articles, and you're a pretty good writer.'"
It was a bit of needed encouragement -- something Lieber would eventually return -- and the two became fast friends.
Haygood, Lieber explained, had it pretty rough in Charleston. He lived in a shabby, little apartment with a hideaway bed that folded into the wall. He didn't have a car, and Lieber often gave him rides. He was also under the thumb of a dictatorial boss named Howard "Moo" Cochran.
Lieber said, "Moo used to yell at Wil and tell him he'd never amount to anything."
Somehow Haygood managed to persuade editors to let him write stories -- for free -- on his days off.
Lieber helped him. He took him along on assignments and drove him to stories. Over many months, Haygood amassed a body of work.
He tried to persuade the Gazette to give him a full-time writing job, but the paper balked. Marsh told him there were no openings.
"I was crushed," Haygood said.
So he sent his clippings to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who liked what he saw and brought him in as a reporter. No more copy-editing.
Leaving and growing
In Pittsburgh, Haygood continued to grow as a writer. The Post-Gazette let him do hard news, feature writing -- whatever he could come up with. After a year there, he left for the Boston Globe.
"Where they really valued narrative writing," he said.
Matt Storin was the managing editor at the Globe in the early 1980s. He remembered Haygood as being one of the most earnest writers he'd met.
"But he also had a terrible stutter," he said.