Saturday, February 16, 2008

Writing the story of Wessa Miller

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – You’ve seen the cartoons where somebody gets an idea and light bulb goes off over his head.

That didn’t literally happen to me the night I first thought about trying to find out whatever happened to Wessa Miller, but it really was something very much like that. The story that resulted from it appears in the Charlotte Observer and on thatsracin.com.

I was at home, late on a Saturday night, poking around the Internet looking for interesting or fun facts about the history of the Daytona 500. I looked back at some of the stories about Dale Earnhardt’s victory in the 1998 race, and remembered the story about the Make-A-Wish girl who gave Earnhardt a lucky penny the day before the race.

I can’t say I remembered the 6-year-old girl’s name, but I saw it in some of the second-day stories about Earnhardt’s historic win.

About 10 days earlier, we’d been at Dale Earnhardt Inc. on the preseason media tour and I had walked around the lobby looking at some of the display cases there. In one about Earnhardt’s 1998 victory in the sport’s biggest race I saw a picture of the little girl and remembered her story fondly.

But nothing clicked. It wasn’t until I saw it online again that Saturday night at home that I started thinking about her.

I have to be honest. My first thought was, “I wonder if she’s still with us?” It has been 10 years.

Sadly, too many of the children who have their wishes granted by the marvelous Make-A-Wish aren’t around to have their stories told 10 years later.

My next thought was how do I find her?

I went to Google and typed in her name. I found a blog, or something of that nature, written by a professional wrestler in Kentucky who’d met Wessa and her parents at some kind of fundraiser after they had been to meet Earnhardt. I have no idea who the wrestler is or how old that blog was, but it was a lead.

The blog named a school in Fedscreek, Ky. So I went to whitepages.com and tried to find a listing for Booker Miller or Wessa Miller there. It wasn’t going to be that easy, though.

I sent e-mails that night to a couple of people at Dale Earnhardt Inc., hoping somebody there might have a contact.

Max Siegel, DEI’s president, offered to do anything he could to help me. Kevin Woods, one of the team’s public relations people, suggested I try the Make-A-Wish folks in Charlotte, who wind up handling a lot of NASCAR-related wishes.

I got in touch with Amy Laws at that office. She contacted the Kentucky chapter and found an address and phone number for the Millers. By Monday night, I was calling their house.

Juanita was serving supper when I first called. We arranged for me to call back later that evening and I did. I talked to Booker first, then to Juanita, then to Wessa for a few minutes, then to Juanita again. When I looked up, we’d been on the phone more than an hour.

I was going back through my notes, shaking my head and wiping a few tears from my eyes, when Juanita called me back with one more story. I thanked her, shed a few more tears and went downstairs.

“If I can’t write this story,” I told my wife, Katy, “they need to ban me from ever using a laptop again.”

I woke up at 3 the next morning and went back upstairs. I wrote the first draft of the story in about three hours. I did my Sirius NASCAR Radio show and then flew to Daytona.

I’ve been here since, and I’ve talked to Juanita Miller a half-dozen times on the phone since then. I sent her a copy of one version of the story to make sure I had the details right. I called her back to check with her and she thanked me.

“I hope the Lord blesses you for wanting to write Wessa’s story,” she said.

He already has, ma’am. He already has.

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tremendous story, great blog. I am from the coal country. Tough people.
Thanks David.

Heard you on The Racin' Boys out of Kansas City this morning. Enjoyed it.

Bill Koontz

Anonymous said...

Hey David, a side point of that story that maybe you can shed some light on. On the day of the Daytona 500 in 1999 Dale actually went to Daytona USA and got that penny from that car and put it into the car he drove in the 99 race. Is the penny they have on display authentic and they just reglued it to the winning car?

Anonymous said...

David:

Great article! I was a fan of Dale's and I remember where I was 10 years ago when Dale won the 500. When I first read about Wessa, it brought a few tears to my eyes. I've been lucky to see Dale's car twice, once at Daytona USA and at RCR's place. Each time I saw the car, I thought about the little girl who gave Dale that famous penny and if she was still with us. I'm so happy to hear that Wessa is still with and your atricle brought some more tears to my eyes. Thank you for writing this wonderful article. I hope someone from DEI or RCR will help Wessa family get a new van.

Sincerely,
Andy Pentenburg

Redvette said...

Stories and moments like those are why we love the sport. David, thanks for a nice trip down memory lane.

Richard in N.C. said...

DAVID- Thank you. I often disagree with your opinions - but I must agree that you are quite talented and I almost always enjoy reading what you write, whether I agree or not.

Richard in N.C. said...

DAVID, Just finished reading your article. You really are a hell of a good writer. Thank you.

Arthur said...

David,

You get to keep the laptop. Brilliant story, something that I am glad to have read.

Anonymous said...

David...Thanks for the great story. There must be hundreds of these human interest stories in NASCAR. Its stories like this one that really make these guys special. Thanks again.

Bobby Padgett said...

David,

As someone who remembers you from you hotdog eating, video game playing lunches at Putt Putt beside the Gazette, I gotta say this was an excellent piece of journalism. It's stories like this that make me proud to be a Dale Earnhardt fan. Forget the pampered brats whose momma and daddy gave them top rides, and they spend their lives in the motor coach, Dale was a boy from the mill hill who made good and was glad to give back without worrying about needing the PR for doing so.

I agree with one the other bloggers that if Jr. wins maybe he can get them a new van with a ramp from Earnhardt Chevrolet. Hell, he used to do oil changes there. Maybe him and Teresa can bury the hatchet on this one.

Slider said...

David,

Shame on you for not posting a NSFW (not safe for work) or NSFS (Not safe for reading in front of spouse)!

As I sat on the couch with my three year old daughter sleeping on my side I started crying while reading your article and couldn't stop. Reading stories like the one on Wessa puts our own lives in perspective and makes us think how grateful we should all be for having healthy children. We should stop yelling at them for messing up their rooms or coloring somewhere they shouldn't be coloring.

Excellent article David.....next time please warn me to bring some tissues to the laptop with me.

Anonymous said...

Excellent! Probably the best piece of writing you have ever done, David.

This just goes to prove what a great man Dale Earnhardt was. He was incredible! 1998 was the best Daytona 500 in history thanks to a little girl and her lucky penny #3!

Jim K said...

This story is the best you have written that I have read. I have cried several times while reading Wessa's story. Great job David.

Anonymous said...

Another amazing story, Dave. You, and all the contributors to thatsracin.com, turn out these fantastic storylines that bring PEOPLE to the forefront of this racing business. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Wessa is my cousin.
I would like to thank you so much for caring about Wessa enough to go through all that trouble to find what happened to her. She has a great heart and would do anything to help others. You have no idea how happy she was when she found out about your plan of writing about her.

Allison

Anonymous said...

Wow.

With tears in my eyes, I have to say this is probably the best story you've written, and I've read quite a few of your articles over the years.

For gods sake, I hope some rich person reads this story and donates a van to the Miller family.

Thanks for the read.

Anonymous said...

Allison,
Thank you. That's great to hear. The only hope I had was that I could do the story justice. I understand the paper in Lexington, Ky., ran the story, too. I hope the Millers get to see it.
David Poole

PS - Thanks to everyone else for the kind words, too.

RL Blooze said...

Dad gum you David, It's bad enough I couldn't watch the 1998 Daytona 500 without crying last night, now you got me crying this morning too.
You da' man!!

Anonymous said...

They saw it and Wessa was really happy, along with the rest of the family. I hope that they will be able to get a new van soon.

Allison

Candy said...

David,
Thank you for doing Wessa's story.You did a wonderful job.I to am Wessa's cousin and she is the strongest person I know. Wessa is my HERO.I strive to be more like her everyday. If I could be half the person she is I will be ok.Wessa has been sick for the last 3 days, with a trip to the doctor Friday evening and again Saturday morning.Please remember her in your prayers.I just got off the phone with her and she is so excited about the story. Thanks again and GOD BLESS...........

Anonymous said...

David,

I also, am Wessa's cousin. I have had the wonderful pleasure of watching this amazing person grow into the wonderful young woman that she is today. Wessa has touched uncountable people's lives with her determination and her undying passion for life. She is a true inspiration to me and so many others. Thank you so much for sharing her story, and being a bridge to help her reach others. May God Bless you in all that you do.

Amy Perkins, Salyersville, KY

Bobby Padgett said...

I've been thinking all weekend that it would be nice if all of us Earnhardt fans would chip in a couple of bucks to Wessa, maybe the Millers could buy a new van. After 10 years I think it would be a small way to thank the little girl who helped the biggest driver in NASCAR win its biggest race.

Bobby Padgett

John said...

Hey David,

I'm in agreement with Bobby Padgett... maybe we could kick off a collection to help buy that van for Wessa's family. Those of us who loved Dale, could best honor his memory by doing what he so often did... reach out and help others. Could you see if there is somewhere we could send the contributions to, and then announce the drive in a follow up?

Thank you for the wonderful article. Perhaps God used you to bless Wessa's family.

Melissa said...

David,
I am another one if Wessa's cousins. She has also been a true blessing to me. Every time I see her she always has a big smile and hug for me. I think her mother is amazing. She is a wonderful mother to Wessa and she is always willing to help anyone that needs it.
This story was wonderful and I just wanted to say thank you and may God bless you.

Melissa Shope
Mt. Holly, NC

Candy said...

David,
I talked to Juanita and she did get the Lexington paper.Just wanted to let you know...Thanks again...
Candy Meade

Phyllis,KY

Anonymous said...

Great story David, I started reading it at work but I had to stop. Just like another reader said, this should have been marked NSFW (not safe for work)....I finished it at home when I knew I had privacy.....

Anonymous said...

Great story man! It broke me up and brought me around. It puts things in prospective. If somebody gets a fund up, let us all know.

nh_nascarfan said...

Wow.

That puts a lot in perspective. Kind of makes all the arging about the CoT and top 35 seem really silly.

Great work David...

Anonymous said...

linktest

Anonymous said...

David,
I am Wessa's aunt and church Youth Director. Although Wessa is faithful to NASCAR she is also faithful to church. She is one of the most dedicated youth that we have in our youth group. If at all possible she is there on Sunday and Wednesday nights. I believe her faith in God has brought her through all the barriers that she has faced in her young life. Thank you for writing the article. It was great and a blessing to Wessa as well as her family. You did a wonderful job.
Judy Fields
Phyllis, KY

Anonymous said...

Yeah, big, tough, grown-up guy and three hankies barely got me through the first read. But every subsequent re-reading has made me smile, think or count my blessings.

A story that deserves to be told. A writing job that deserves to be recognized.

Well done.

katlyn hopkins said...

I also am one if Wessa's cousins.She means the world to me. She is a really great person.Our family would not be complete if she wasnt in it.


2-24-08


Katlyn Hopkins

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