Wick Communications

Turning ordinary into something special

In Writing techniques on 23 Aug 2012 at 3:15 pm

Ricky Carloti / Washington Post

Here’s how great things sometimes start: Washington Post intern Greg Thomas was minding his own business, probably trying to look busy, when local editor Vernon Loeb sauntered over with what everyone thought was a stinker. “Hey kid,” says Loeb in my imagination, “I need you to do a story about a 72-year-old scientist who is up for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal. They call ’em ‘the government Oscars.’ Have fun with it.”

Then I hear sniggers from the surrounding cubicles. It was not the kind of assignment that normally makes a Post reporter’s pulse quicken.

But Greg, a former Half Moon Bay Review reporter, saw something there. And the result is worth talking about.

The Post is doing features on many or all of the 33 people up for the Heyman Service medals. Greg drew Art Friedlander, who is the government’s point man when it comes to anthrax and bubonic plague. He’s been at it since dinosaurs wandered the earth and does his work from a windowless office deep within a Homeland Security installation at Fort Detrick. One imagines Friedlander works in relative obscurity until something really, really bad happens and his research is suddenly of national concern.

Greg found the core of his story in the post-Sept. 11 interest in Friedland’s work and the security attendant to it. He begins this way:

Art Friedlander agrees to a morning rendezvous at a McDonald’s parking lot in Frederick. Taking guests to a military post where scientists test vaccines for anthrax is “a pain in the neck,” he says. …

Later on, Greg takes stock of the things in the scientist’s office.

Inside, Friedlander marches through a maze of hallways to his office, swiping his identification card at half a dozen doorways. His office is small and windowless, nestled at the heart of the compound where linoleum flooring of the labs gives way to carpet. He sits behind his desk, barely visible behind stacks of papers, and adjusts his eyeglasses. Three faded portraits of bearded men, taken during the 19th century, adorn his desk in the spot typically reserved for vacation snapshots.

The first photo shows German biologist Robert Koch, who discovered that anthrax was an infectious disease in the mid-19th century. The second is French chemist Louis Pasteur, who created the first vaccines for anthrax and rabies shortly thereafter. Third is Swiss bacteriologist Alexander Yersin, who discovered the pathogen responsible for the bubonic plague near the turn of the 20th century.

“These are the guys who started the game,” Friedlander says. “We’re just following in their footsteps.”

His colleagues and superiors say Friedlander’s work is as important to the science as the men on his desk…

It’s not a particularly original tactic, noting the stuff on the subject’s desk. But Greg uses it to great effect when he notes the impact those “bearded men” had on his subject.

I’m always fascinated by the stories of unsung heroes, people who toil every day at really interesting things. If you get a story like that, look for things that relate your subject to readers – McDonald’s parking lots and portraits on the desk. Then tell us, in detail, what makes this person so special.




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