What you think might be a Pulitzer-quality epic might draw only a nice call from Mom, while a simple tale tossed off on deadline causes an uproar, or an avalanche of praise. One legendary former investigative reporter at this paper wrote scores of stories that changed laws and saved lives, yet never did he get more mail than when he wrote about burying his cat.
And so it is with my June column on the amateur photographer, the widow and the eagle on a gravestone.
A quick recap: Amateur photographer Frank Glick was on his way to work when he drove through Fort Snelling National Cemetery early one morning. He spotted a bald eagle through the mist, perched on a gravestone, and snapped shots with his aging but ever-present camera.
Nice shot, he thought.
An acquaintance saw the photo and suggested that he see if the deceased soldier had any living relatives who might want it. Indeed, Maurice Ruch's widow was alive and well and delighted to receive a copy of the eagle watching over her beloved husband.
Glick's friend called me. Nice story, I thought.
Then it began.
Mail and calls from Minnesota, then Chicago, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina and finally, Afghanistan. The picture and story had gone viral. I noticed 11,000 people had recommended it on Facebook. I forwarded scores and scores of requests for reprints to Glick. Unfortunately, he had become ill and has been in the hospital off and on since the column ran. Mail piled up. (To reach Glick about the photo, e-mail him at email@example.com. Be patient.)
"It's been pretty hard to keep up with this stuff," Glick said from his hospital bed. "It's pretty amazing what's going on."
Requests for the photo, and use of the story, have come from the Department of Veterans Affairs, military publications, Arlington National Cemetery. Soldiers in Afghanistan have inquired about the photo, including some from the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, stationed at Bagram Airfield.
"I sent a good-sized one to a base in Afghanistan because they wanted to build a memorial to members of their unit who had been killed," Glick said.
This letter, from Atlanta, was typical:
"You have no idea just how much this photo and story mean to so many of us who have served. We do not ask for special treatment; we do not ask for your gratitude; we don't even ask for your patience when we occasionally 'geeze' with old stories. We would like to have some understanding just how much service to this great nation means to each of us. Your picture and story show me that some do understand."
One person wrote a poem based on the photo, another wrote a song and a third sent me a short story based on the column. Veterans have called the Fort Snelling cemetery, crying.
Not surprisingly, there were few readers who insisted that the photo was a fake. The bird was too big, they said. There's an aura of light on one side that reflects the use of Photoshop, said others.
"It's not Photoshopped," said Glick. "I did crop it [as did the newspaper]. If I had Photoshopped it, I wouldn't have the eagle's tail covering the name."
He also may have put the eagle on a different headstone to make the composition perfect, he said. "It's a good picture, but it could have been a much greater picture."
Glick took the photo with an older Nikon camera and a multi-purpose lens. He took more than 60 shots of the bird at the cemetery, from different angles and locations. Some are sharp, some are blurry. Some are not very well composed.
"But I just like the feel of this one."
Star Tribune photographers studied the original that Glick sent me and said there's nothing conclusive to say whether it is faked. They also looked at a photo of the bird from the front and said it seemed legitimate, and consistent with the other photo.
As for the size of the bird?
The tombstones rise about 22 inches from the ground. Eagles can grow to 37 inches tall. So the proportion seems right.
I asked a cemetery employee if they ever see eagles.
"All the time," she said. Her boss concurred.
Glick's significant other, Jo Edwards-Johns, got a call from Glick shortly after he shot the photos because he was so excited. She has tried to keep up with the mail between trips to the hospital to be with Glick.
Meanwhile, the woman who received the free print, Vivian Ruch, has likewise been flooded with calls.
"I can't tell you the impact it has had," she said. "It's because it's just not about Maurie, it's about all of them [soldiers]."
"It's just got some quality about it," said Glick. "Sure, I wouldn't mind getting rich off of it, but that probably isn't happening. It makes people feel better. It makes them feel warm and fuzzy. That's what it's for."