Out of the office: Wil Haygood and The Butler

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

At lunch that day we mainly talked sports — Wil Haygood and me and South Bend’s long-time political writer Jack Colwell and Professor Bob Schmuhl who runs Notre Dame’s journalism program.

We were at Rohr’s, at a table “out of the line of fire,” as Haygood had requested, so we could talk. And he was asking about Everett Golson and about the Irish football players suspended for academic violations and about the role of football at the University, its benefits and its risks.

And so we talked on about the corruption of intercollegiate athletics at other places. Haygood knew the scandals, the guilty parties, the coaches on whose watch improprieties had occurred. He’s a sports fan.

In high school, Haygood got up at 4:30 a.m. and rode two city buses from the Bolivar Arms housing project in Columbus, Ohio, to a predominantly white school in the suburbs so he could play basketball — because he had been cut from his local school’s team. This journey, I would come to realize, was but an early sign of the ambition and persistence that characterized the career of this very accomplished — and tall — writer.

Haygood was on campus October 26-30 as journalist-in-residence for the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy, which Schmuhl directs. He gave a public lecture, spoke to four classes, had dinner with The Observer staff, made himself available during “office hours” for students who wanted to drop by and talk, did a book signing and also ate and met and talked with other folks who knew Haygood as the man who first told the story of the White House butler whose life was turned into a high-profile movie that starred Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Cuba Gooding Jr.

After lunch, Haygood — gracious, gentle, engaged and remarkably comfortable to be with — would speak to a merging of writing classes (Colwell’s and mine) gathered in 116 DeBartolo. So the sports-talk interlude was probably a welcome change of weight from other topics Haygood tackled during his time on campus.

For 17 years Haygood was a national and foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe before joining The Washington Post in 2002. He covered the civil war and famine in Somalia, where he was captured by rebels, threatened with death, held captive and eventually released for a suitcase of ransom money in the desert. He was outside the South African prison when Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years behind bars. He was one of the first journalists in New Orleans after Katrina and covered the devastation nonstop in New Orleans for 33 days.

And he found and interviewed Matthew McKeon 33 years after the Marine staff sergeant marched his platoon into the Parris Island swamps, a 1956 boot camp tragedy that led to six drowning deaths and McKeon’s court martial.

Haygood — speaking with passion, empathy, insight, humor and humility — told the stories behind these stories and more, about his books (biographies of Sammy Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson, Adam Clayton Powell, Thurgood Marshall and his 2,500-mile journey down the Mississippi River to commemorate the raft trip of Huck and Jim), and shared his thoughts, advice and experience with students anticipating careers in journalism.

And then there was The Butler.

In 2008 Haygood was covering the Obama campaign when he thought to do a story, in anticipation of Obama’s historic election, on an African American who had served in the White House during segregation. But for days he couldn’t locate such a person still living — until an unidentified caller gave him a name, Eugene Allen, and little more.

Suspecting the former White House staffer still lived in the D.C. area, Haygood spread out a half dozen phone books and called 56 Eugene Allens before getting the 89-year-old man who had served eight presidents, from Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan.

Haygood went to the Allen home the Friday before the Tuesday Election Day and spent hours with the former butler and his wife, Helene, immensely proud of her humble husband. A walk into the basement revealed a treasure of old photos and keepsakes of historical significance.

Intending to write a feature for Election Day, Haygood assigned a photographer to the Allens’ home on Saturday. When Haygood called Eugene Allen the following day to see how the shoot went, Mr. Allen told the writer that Helene was gone. “What do you mean gone?” asked Haygood. “Gone where?”

Helene, 86, had died in the night.

Eugene Allen was devastated, and Haygood told his editor he wasn’t sure he could still do the story. It was the Allens’ son Charles who persuaded Haygood to go forward. Charles told me, Haygood recalled, “Don’t you get it? She’s been waiting all this time for your knock on the door.”

The story, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” was published by The Washington Post November 7, 2008. The award-winning movie, The Butler, was released in 2013 and Haygood’s book, The Butler: A Witness to History, recounting the full life story of Eugene Allen who was born on a Southern plantation in 1919, was published in tandem with the movie. It’s a poignant American story by a writer who also has spent a lifetime as a witness to history.

Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine.