When a Story Brings Tears to Your Eyes

This month’s Washingtonian magazine, looking to give readers stories to feel good about, reran a long story that it called “maybe the most popular article in the magazine’s 55-year history.”

The story, “Like Something the Lord Made,” had won the 1990 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing and inspired an Emmy-winning HBO movie.

Getting the story published at all was a tribute to the remarkable persistence of its writer, Katie McCabe. She believed in the story and wouldn’t stop trying until some magazine published it.

When she first called me about the story in 1987, we already had worked together on several good pieces. She was calling to say she had written a story about a man named Vivien Thomas, who she said had been famous at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for his surgical skills despite not being a doctor.

I asked Katie if the story had a Washington connection. No, but Baltimore is only 30 miles away. We talked about the story and I asked if we published it could we take good pictures of Thomas.

Well, no, he died five years ago.

She sent us the story—back then stories arrived on paper—and this one came in a big brown envelope and was 21,000 words long.

I read it and at the end had tears in my eyes. But it wasn’t Washington and we were a city magazine that focused relentlessly on our home turf. The subject of the story was dead. And at 21,000 words it translated to 45 columns of magazine type. With good pictures—if there were any—it would run at least 20 pages in the magazine.

I told Katie it was a wonderful story but not for us. I suggested she try the national magazines or the city magazine in Baltimore.

A year later, she called to say she’d tried the New Yorker, the Atlantic, American Heritage, Reader’s Digest, and a half-dozen other magazines and they’d all turned her down. One said they’d consider the story if she cut it to 4,000 words.

She made another pitch for the story and I remembered the tears after first reading it. We looked at it again. Ken DeCell and Bill O’Sullivan, two senior editors, cut it to about 12,000 words, we found some pictures, and published it in August 1989.

After it won the National Magazine Award, I made no friends by mentioning in the acceptance speech in New York the names of some of the magazines that had turned it down.

I was just trying to make the case to fellow editors that if you read a story that brings tears to your eyes, publish it.



  1. Barnard Law Collier says

    Point well made.

  2. Ervin S. Duggan says

    I remember this story: greatness in print, and a memorable achievement for the magazine.

Speak Your Mind