As each year closes, it's become a tradition to remember those we have lost in the previous 12 months.
As a NASCAR PR guy, I'd often worked with the late David Poole of the Charlotte Observer and SiriusXM Radio. When I began researching remarkable NASCAR fans to profile in "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday," I came across a stunning story David wrote about Wessa Miller, the so-called "Lucky Penny Girl." When David passed away, I wrote the following piece for NASCAR.COM (April 29, 2009). I believe it's appropriate to re-post it today, as we look back on 2009, and wish all departed souls a peaceful journey.
IN THE END, POOLE'S HEART PROVED EVEN LARGER THAN LIFE
I'll always remember my first time in a NASCAR media center about seven years ago, completely green and alien to the sport.
In reading about NASCAR to prep for the new job, the name "David Poole" kept popping up. And there at the track, the first reporter I recognized was the man who had penned many influential articles shaping coverage of the sport. I stuck out my hand and introduced myself as NASCAR's new business PR guy in New York.
"If there's anything you ever need, about sponsors, the business of NASCAR, whatever, feel free to give me a shout," I eagerly offered.
If I had had a tail, it would have been bushy.
There was a pregnant pause, we're talking third trimester. David gave me that Poole Look and barked, "Who do I talk to about racin'?"
I felt about one inch tall, and retreated with that formerly bright tail tucked between my legs. Poole clearly was not interested in relationship with a neophyte from the sport's New York business office.
That made me all the more determined to win him over. And in pitching stories to Poole through the years, I did.
Poole didn't always agree with my e-mailed solicitations. In fact, I can think of no human being who took greater joy in puncturing balloons. But we developed the kind of cautious mutually respectful relationship you sensed he had with a lot of people.
Once in a while Poole would say, "that's a pretty good idea." And sometimes, "Andrew, that's the stupidest thing I've heard all day."
I was lucky. Sometimes it was the stupidest thing all week. Once it was the stupidest thing all year. I didn't feel too bad since it was early in the season and the year was relatively young.
That gorgeous bluntness was what a lot of people liked most about David. He suffered no fools and made crankiness appealing.
But I sensed Poole trusted me, despite my Gotham City geographical handicap, and that became clear when he'd call for "off the record" chats to go over his annual "most influential people in NASCAR list." Based on our conversations, when Poole added a name or two, and moved around a few others, it was pretty rewarding.
I was fortunate to spend time with David in Bristol in March while working on a chapter about Wessa Miller for my book on remarkable NASCAR fans. Wessa, you may remember, was the 6-year old girl with spina bifida who gave her lucky penny to Dale Earnhardt. He secretly glued the coin to his dash and went on to win the 1998 Daytona 500 on his 20th try. Dale then brought the family to Bristol and quietly, without fan fare or photo opps, bought them a new Chevy van, which they still use to get Wessa to doctor's appointments.
Ten years after Earnhardt's 1998 Daytona 500 win, planning for his lead season-opening story, David remembered the "Lucky Penny Girl."
"Anybody who's been in a journalism class has heard of the 'Where are they now?' story," he said. "I was gonna do that story with Wessa."
And how. David totally nailed the tale of the "Lucky Penny Girl" in the Charlotte Observer.
Reader response to the front-page story was so strong, Poole created a special charity, called "The Pennies for Wessa Fund." Money raised would assist the Millers with medical bills, travel expenses to faraway doctors and home renovations for Wessa's special needs.
Poole also engineered a trip for Wessa and her family to come back to Bristol Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt had hosted them in 1998, to shoot a special NASCAR Angels segment.
An online auction also raised funds for the family. One item for bid was a lunch and race shop tour with David Poole. David laughed when I called it "A Day of Masochism." One gentleman bid nearly $1,000 to spend a day with the sport's biggest curmudgeon. It was not to be.
Five weeks ago in Bristol, sitting in a news conference with Wessa Miller and her parents Booker and Juanita, David had switched seats to become part of the story. Instead of asking barbed questions, David was giving the answers. He relished talking about "Pennies for Wessa" and the journalistic mechanics of what may turn out to be his most famous story -- tracking down Wessa by way of an Internet search for a professional wrestler, speaking with Wessa's mom Juanita for two hours that first night, then walking downstairs to declare to his wife Katy, "If I can't write this story, take me off this job."
"You're not supposed to be part of the story," Poole said. "But sometimes the story becomes part of you. Every one of us has good days and bad days. A good day for the Millers is when nothing really bad happens. The things they deal with on their good days would be a pretty bad day for anyone else. But they look at every single day as an absolute gift. If all of us thought like that, it would be a much better world."
Though they didn't always agree with every one of David Poole's strident opinions, a lot of NASCAR fans would say he made the world better.
It turned out David Poole's heart was as big as his opinions after all.
What strikes me is this: Just as the "The Lucky Penny Girl" in NASCAR lore showed the softer side of crusty old Dale Earnhardt, so too will she continue to shine a light on the secret gentle side of David Poole.
If anyone wishes to donate to the fund David created for little Wessa Miller, who is now 17, that's as fine a way as any to remember him. Just visit www.penniesforwessa.org.