As It Happens

Book about a random Sunday in the U.S. proves 'there's no such thing as an ordinary day'

Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten has a mantra: if you've got the patience to find it, and the skill to tell it, there's a story behind everyone and everything. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gene Weingarten plucked a random date from a hat for his new book, One Day

Gene Weingarten's new book One Day weaves together the incredible stories behind the headlines from Dec. 28, 1986 — an insignificant date he plucked from a hat. (Sheena Goodyear/CBC)
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Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten has a mantra: if you've got the patience to find it, and the skill to tell it, there's a story behind everyone and everything. 

When he was the Sunday editor at the paper, he once took that mantra to extremes, instructing four reporters on Christmas Day to walk north, south, east and west, no further than seven blocks, and return with a story. And if they didn't? Well, they should probably find a different job.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has now applied that reporting stunt to his new book, One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America. The idea was simple: pull a random date out of a hat and find as many compelling stories from that day as possible. 

"The idea of the book was to explore the thesis that there is no such thing as an ordinary day," Weingarten told As It Happens host Carol Off.

'The worst day'

It all began with Weingarten and his editor at a restaurant with an old green fedora on the table between them. 

Inside of it were little pieces of paper with numbers on them. They recruited some children to draw the numbers from the hat — one for the date, one for the month and one for the year. 

The result — Dec. 28, 1986 — was disappointing, he said. 

In this 2008 photo, Washington Post managing editor Philip Bennett, left, congratulates Weingarten, right, for winning the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

"It turned out to be a Sunday, which as all journalists know, is the weakest news day of the week. It turned out to be the week between Christmas and New Year's, which is always the weakest news week of the year. And 1986 didn't really seem to ring many bells for great news," he said.

"So we figured we had the worst day of the week, and the worst week of the year in a bad year."

But he couldn't back down now. After all, there's a story behind everything. That's his mantra. 

So he started Googling news stories and legal rulings from the date in question, and digging in to find the deeper stories behind the headlines. 

'Almost unbelievable in its complexity'

One of the first things he found was a New York Times article with the headline "Nebraska House Fire Kills 3."

There wasn't much information. All the news report said was that two children and their babysitter died in a house fire.

But as he dug deeper, he says the story "developed into this gothic melodrama almost unbelievable in its complexity."

First of all, Todd Thrane, the man described in the news report as the babysitter, was in fact the mother's boyfriend, and he was at the house that night because he lived there.

"He was a hellion. He was a guy who had never done anything right in his life," Weingarten said. "And on that early morning, when he was alone with the children, he did something right in this really dramatic way."

When flames erupted in the middle of the night, Thrane sprang into action, running to the children's room to try and save them. 

"He could have run from this house," Weingarten said. "But he went for the children. And, you know, it was a gigantic tragedy, obviously. They all three died. But he died a hero."

But the story doesn't end there. Weingarten learned that the mother, Becky Gill, was pregnant with Thrane's son at the time. 

He tracked down Mark Gill three decades after his father was killed in the blaze, and unravelled another incredible story — this one ripe with family drama and misadventures in crime, all detailed in the book.

The heart of the murderer, literally 

Another story that made the news from that day was the first heart transplant ever performed in the D.C. area.

It was also the first heart transplant the doctors had ever performed on a living patient. In the months leading up to it, they'd been practising on corpses.

But 19-year-old Eva Baisey was very much alive, and she needed a new heart fast if she wanted to stay that way. So as soon as one became available, she went under the knife. 

The surgery was a success — but the events that led up to it were tragic. 

It was this horrific story behind the heart that would wind up going into an innocent young woman's body.- Gene Weingarten, author of One Day

Just before Christmas, a young woman named Karen decided to break up with her abusive boyfriend Mark Wiley.

He didn't take it well.

The "disturbed young man" showed up at Karen's apartment on Dec. 27 with a gun, murdered her in front of the Christmas tree, and took his own life. 

"It was this horrific story behind the heart that would wind up going into an innocent young woman's body," Weingarten said. "The heart of a murderer."

Baisey, on the other hand, was by all accounts a lovely person — a nursing student who wanted nothing more than to "help old people and babies," Weingarten said. "And that's what she does now."

Baisey is now a practising nurse and among the longest surviving heart transplant recipients on the planet. In 2016, she reunited with the doctors who saved her life, the Washinton Post reported.

Deirdre Carolan, Eva Baisey and Dr. Edward Lefrak in Falls Church, Va., on Dec. 22, 2016. Lefrak performed his first-ever transplant on Baisey 30 years ago. Carolan was Baisey's floor nurse. Very few transplant recipients have lived as long as Baisey. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

When Weingarten asked Baisey how she felt receiving the heart of a killer, she paused for a beat. 

"There is something that happens with heart transplant patients where it is such a difficult ordeal to survive that they tend not to get involved in the lives of the donor," Weingarten said.

"It's not ingratitude. It's that you don't really want to incorporate someone else's tragedy into your own life. You have enough to deal with."

When she finally answered, Baisey said something that "disturbed some people," but which Weingarten says he believes is "really profound."

"Someone loved someone so hard they couldn't bear to live without them," Baisey told him. "Yes, it's selfish. I don't want anyone to love me to death. But it all comes out of a need to be wanted, to passionately connect with another person. That is not meaningless. That comes out of something good. And something good came out of that."

'The full breadth of human experience'

One Day is full of stories like Thrane's and Baisey's — stories of hope and tragedy, of people who lived and people who died.

There's the helicopter pilot whose life was saved and who saved lives in return, the college student found strangled beneath a bridge, the mayor who was heckled in a church, and two young people who got married on a drunken whim and built a life together.

"It didn't matter what day I wound up getting in that silly drawing with the old fedora," Weingarten said.

"Whatever day it was, if you dig deeply enough into it ... you would wind up with the full breadth of human experience — you know, tragedy, comedy, irony, cosmic comeuppances, whatever. And I wasn't at all sure that that's what was going to happen.... But it did, to my astonishment."


Written by Sheena Goodyear and Jeanne Armstrong with files from Sarah Jackson and The Associated Press. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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