Tom Heslin

Sr. VP & Executive Editor, The Providence Journal

Providence, R.I.

[RI-E 0201]

So, I was a reporter at a great weekly newspaper in Kennebunk, Maine, called The York County Coast Star. And this paper was run by a man named Sandy Brooke, and he was committed to great writing – committed to public service. It was a wonderful – and it was really sort of my first paying newspaper job. And I loved it – I thrived there – and I had some success, and I really became a little bit full of myself. They kept trying to find better assignments, and I was a bit of a whiner, I think. But I loved them all dearly. And so, they gave me a better assignment and whatever ….

And so one day the managing editor – who really had my number – said, “Tom, come here.” And he had a pink slip, and he said, “We just got a call from a farmer out in West Kennebunk, and he said that his hen has laid the biggest egg that he has ever seen. And I want you to go out there and talk to this guy and see what’s going on.” So I took the pink slip and I was, you know, and my blood was broiling – and I said OK.

I went out, and I drove out on this country road. I got lost going out there. And I came to this little glen with this little small farmhouse, and it was dark and there were no cars around. You know, this was before the days when you can plug in the thing in your GPS.

And I knocked on the door and this fellow invited me in into the kitchen. [It] was dark and kind of damp – it was an old farmhouse. And he reached under the table where there was a big Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket and pulled it up. And it was too dark and I said, “OK, can we go out – Let’s go outside.” And so we’re talking about and so what – and I’m from New Jersey – so what about? – Do you know which hen laid the egg? And he said, “No, I got a lot of hens. I don’t know.”

So, it wasn’t really kind of going anywhere. He was: “Yeah. No. I don’t know.”

So we put the bucket on the picnic table outside, and he was moving this tissue paper – this gift-wrapping. And he reaches in and pulls out the egg, and he holds up the egg.

So I step back, and I have a camera, and I take a picture of the egg. And as I click the shutter, and I get the egg in focus, I say, “OK. I quit.”

And, you know, the egg – it was a good size egg – but I had a – I don’t even know really – but I went back to the office and met with the managing editor, and said, “I quit – I’m not in a huff – I really can’t do this anymore.” And I was kind of full of myself. I don’t even know whether I ever did anything with the story.

So, eventually – in a couple of weeks – we had a celebration. And people gave me a copy of the egg picture, and we created The Royal Order of the Egg for reporters who were too big for an assignment and whatever, and it was a fun thing, And, again, I didn’t storm out the door – but I went to The Rutland Herald in Rutland, Vt., which is another wonderful newspaper.

So, we had moved to Rhode Island, and you know how reporters and journalists have cardboard boxes, and I was moving the stuff around in my basement one day – we were at The Journal – it was many years later – and I opened up the box. And I got teary-eyed. The picture that I had taken of that egg – that framed picture of that egg – was there.

But what I saw, later on in my career at this point, was not the egg but the hand that was holding the egg. And in that hand – you could see the creases and the – and the kind of the embedded dirt – I mean this is a workingman’s hand.

And what I realized at that moment that I hadn’t – I was so full of myself – my own peculiar little dilemma here or whatever it was about that story – that I hadn’t thought to ask about him.

Here was a fellow – he called the newspaper to talk about an egg. He was out in a farm. There was no one around. What was his story? Where was his family? Did he ever have a day off? How had he built the hencoop?

There were so many things I could’ve explored and probably found a wonderful career-defining story.

And I guess my “Ah-ha” moment there, and I’ve told this many times, is that when we go out and whether we’re going – particularly – go to the simple assignments covering fairs of parades or whatever – or going to see the big egg – let’s remember: it’s not about the egg – it’s about the hand.

That’s my “Ah-ha” moment.