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Wil Haygood did it

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.

Storin said the Globe hired Haygood during his time, but Storin left the paper not long after. He didn't return for almost eight years.

In that interval, Haygood flourished.

He wrote hundreds of stories, traveled the Deep South, went to Africa as a foreign correspondent covering the civil war in Somalia, went into the jungles of Liberia and was taken hostage by rebels. He was in South Africa the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

He also began writing books, won several prestigious awards and became a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

"By the time I got back, the stutter had all but disappeared," Storin said. "He'd just become more confident."

Finding 'The Butler'

In 2002, Haywood joined The Washington Post. In 2008, the paper assigned him as one of the writers following the Obama campaign. At a rally in Raleigh, N.C., he met three white women who'd fallen out with their fathers because of their support of the Illinois senator. It convinced Haygood of the certainty Obama would win the election.

Electing a black man to the highest office in the land was a historic moment. Haygood decided he needed to find a black person who worked in the White House during segregation, someone for whom the idea of a black person becoming the president of the United States would have been unthinkable.

"I wanted to be ready with a big story to explain to America what this story means," Haygood said.

His editor, unconvinced of Obama's chances, gave Haygood two weeks. After that, the Post wanted him back on the campaign trail.

Haygood said the White House was unhelpful, but through various contacts, he heard about a White House butlers and maids reunion. Through one of the attendees, he learned of Eugene Allen, a butler who'd served under three presidents.

Allen, she believed, still lived in the Washington area, but she didn't know where.

"So I got out the phone books and did it old school," Haygood said, laughing.

It turned out there were a lot of Eugene Allens, but Haygood approached it methodically, making 10 calls from one book before switching to the next book. He talked to dozens of people and finally, on the 56th call, reached a man who said that yes, he'd served as a butler at the White House.

Haygood said, "I asked him if I could come over and talk about his years working for three presidents at the White House."

Allen stopped him.

"Excuse me," he said. "It was eight presidents."

Haygood was dumbfounded.

"Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan," Allen said. "You count 'em."

Haygood met Allen and his wife of 65 years, Helena, at their small home outside of Washington. The couple wasn't sure what to make of Haygood, but the reporter gave them time to get used to him.

"We sat together in their living room and watched back-to-back episodes of 'The Price is Right,'" he said.

Eventually, Allen began to tell his remarkable story. What worried Haygood was he didn't see much evidence of Allen's decades of service. There was just one picture on the wall of Allen with Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

"And here I am waiting to see scrapbooks or something," Haygood said.

Finally, Helena told her husband, "Honey, it's OK now."

Allen led Haygood down the steps of their basement, flipped on the light at the bottom and dazzled Haygood.

"It was like I'd been transported to the Land of Oz," he said.

Downstairs, there were two rooms filled with photographs, letters and keepsakes Allen had received from Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Ford. There were also pictures of many White House guests, including Count Basie, Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis Jr.

"Mr. Allen had a tie given to him by Jackie Kennedy because after her husband had been killed in Dallas, Allen came back to the White House at 3 a.m. because he wanted to make sure that she and the children were all right."

Allen's story was everything Haywood could have asked for and more. He'd been a witness to the unfolding of world and American history. He'd been on the job when Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi and when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala.

He'd been in the White House during the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., through the Kennedy assassinations, and served Lyndon Johnson his Pepto-Bismol while the president worried over the growing number of American casualties in Vietnam.

"And he'd had to do it silently," Haygood said. "He'd had to do it without ever telling the president that his own son was over there too."

Allen also was the first butler ever to be invited to a state dinner -- by the Reagans.

Haygood wrote the story, but it was bittersweet. The weekend before the election, the Post sent a photographer to the Allens' house to take pictures. Monday morning, Haygood called to check on the Allens and make sure everything had gone according to plan.

Helena Allen had died Sunday afternoon, passing away quietly in her sleep.

An overnight success

Haygood was heartbroken, but the story ran the day after the election and Haygood's editor put him on a plane to Memphis, Tenn., to get him out of town.

"It was to help me out," Haygood said.

Something surprising had happened though. The story went viral, and while Haygood was out of town, his phone was ringing off the hook.

He was scarcely through the door of his hotel room when the phone rang. Film producer Laura Ziskin, calling from London, had tracked him down. She told him Eugene Allen's story was a movie she wanted to make.

That was four years ago.

Allen passed away a few years ago, but not before he got to go to Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. It was Allen's first, and he went as a special guest.

"The Butler" wrapped production last year and Haygood, meanwhile, is finishing up a companion book to the movie, as well as a biography about Thurgood Marshall. He's also scheduled to give the commencement address at his college alma mater, which he's incredibly excited about.

Lieber said all of these good things couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy, and while Haygood has won his share of awards, most of those are industry acclaim.

"Here's what surprises me: Wil is one of the greatest nonfiction writers of the past 20 years, and most people don't know it. They've never heard of him."

With "The Butler," he thinks that might change.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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