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ASJA Career Achievement Award

In announcing Hal Higdon as recipient of the Career Achievement Award at the American Society of Journalists and Authors' annual meeting, Sally Wendkos Olds described the award as "the highest the Society gives to writer members." Olds mentioned Higdon's thirty-three books, his numerous magazine articles on all subjects and his long-time relationship with Runner's World magazine as Senior Writer. Olds, a New York City Marathon finisher herself, talked about Higdon's having run 111 marathons, including seven in seven months to celebrate his seventieth birthday in 2001. Higdon also was a finalist to become NASA's Journalist in Space and has been active in the campaign to secure rights for writers. In accepting the award, Higdon introduced his wife Rose and daughter, Laura Higdon Sandall, who accompanied him to the awards luncheon Friday, May 2 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Here are some of Hal Higdon's remarks, expanded from his notes.

From natural childbirth to screwworms

ASJA Career Achievement AwardRose is more than a marriage partner; she is an active collaborator with me in marketing my writing. Several years ago, I talked her into retiring as a schoolteacher, both so we could spend more time together and also to sell books through my popular website, halhigdon.com. I autograph; she mails. Last year, we moved 2,000 to 3,000 books this way. My Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide just reached six figures in sales, thanks to her efforts. Publishers love us. Rodale Press just offered me my highest advance ever for my next book, although I have to admit they offered ten times that sum to a retired baseball player. I won't mention his name other than to say neither of us is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Laura works as Director of Events Marketing for Target Corporation in Minneapolis and was able to adjust a business trip to New York to be with me today. Normally, she lunches with celebrities like Tiger Woods and Marlo Thomas. We once co-authored an article for People Weekly. Now she gets her picture in that magazine, like at the Golden Globes Awards, where she happened to stroll in behind Nicole Kidman: "If you look behind Nicole's right earring, Dad, that's me!"

Andy Warhol once promised everybody fifteen minutes of fame. Actually, it's now more like fifteen seconds, except our fame gets recycled continuously on the Internet.

Laura's older brother David worked for American Health and Tennis magazine, and then became a freelance writer. For several years, David belonged to ASJA, although he currently works in management for ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida where we now have a second home.

Her oldest brother Kevin is the only family member who stayed straight and avoided a media career. Kevin serves as Vice President of Finance for Elkhart (Indiana) General Hospital. Several months after Kevin was born in 1959, I decided to quit my job as Assistant Editor for The Kiwanis Magazine and become a freelance writer. That took more courage than ability, since up to that point I had not sold a single magazine article--not one!

A No-Sell Record

At that time, the Chicago chapter of the Society of Magazine Writers (the ASJA's original name) met monthly at Riccardo's Restaurant on Rush Street. Several SMW members, including Al Balk, Dick Dunlop and Joe Bell sold articles to Kiwanis, so I finagled an invitation to their meeting. Because of my no-sell record, I was nervous about attending, until I got a call that afternoon from Rose, who had just opened the mail. Parents Magazine had accepted a humor article I wrote about "natural childbirth" featuring Kevin. "We Had Our Child--Naturally," was its title. They paid $250, big money in those days. I walked into my first SMW/ASJA meeting proud as if I had a book on the best-seller list.

Despite its distance from New York, the epicenter of the magazine world at that time, the Chicago chapter had some heavy hitters: Bernie Asbell, Bill Furlong, Bill Surface. Chuck and Bonnie Remsberg joined soon after I did. It took me only a few months to accumulate enough writing credits to achieve membership in the national organization. If not late 1959, I certainly had been accepted as a member early in 1960.

To establish myself with editors and get assignments, I visited New York two or three times a year, trying to time my trips so I could attend SMW/ASJA meetings. I still remember the warm welcomes I received from members like Murray Teigh Bloom, Alden Todd, Mort Weisinger and Jack Harrison Pollack. Best-selling authors Vance Packard, Betty Friedan and Al Toffler were simply people who stuck out their hands to say hello. I learned professionalism from these pros. They became my mentors.

Bernie Asbell, now departed, remained a dear friend, even after he moved East. During a craft meeting in Chicago, Bernie described his system for organizing magazine articles. After doing the research and interviews, he would put all the facts and quotes on separate 3 by 5 cards, then make an outline. Next, Bernie would organize the cards according to the outline. Finally, he would write. I have never experienced writer's block, thanks to Bernie Asbell. Once you know what you want to say, the words just flow out of the typewriter, now computer.

At various writers' conferences, such as this one, I have described Bernie's system to others. I got a call several months ago from a woman, who had attended such a conference in Indiana several decades ago. She recalled my sitting down at a table with a typewriter and a stack of 3 by 5 cards and actually beginning to write a magazine article in front of the class. I had forgotten the incident, but it made a profound impression on her.

Thus do we mentor others. The woman is now an established member of the Society of American Travel Writers, although she's not in the Baseball Hall of Fame either.

My Most Memorable Magazine Assignment

Bernie Asbell taught me to always end with a good anecdote. If I had to name my most memorable magazine assignment, it probably would be an article I wrote on the biological control of insects for National Geographic. I had done an article on the same subject for the New York Times Magazine. The Geographic editors saw the article, liked my idea, but assigned it to another writer. That writer failed, so the editors decided to go back to me. What they wanted was the Times article, but with pictures.

They sent me traveling all over the U.S., even into Mexico. After completing the research, I was invited to fly first class to Washington to discuss my progress. (Ann Landers was my seat companion on the plane, but that's another story.) After arriving at Geographic headquarters, I was marched upstairs to a penthouse lunch. The finest china; the best wines. I sat down at one end of a long table with editors on all sides and the top editor at one end. Here I was seated in a chair that probably had felt the buns of Admiral Bird, Sir Edmund Hillary, John Glenn, every great explorer in history. And it dawned on me: I was to be their luncheon entertainment.

So I told them about screwworms.

Screwworms were the scourge of the cattle industry in South America. They burrowed their way into open sores in cattle, laid their eggs, and the emerging larvae fed on the cattle, weakening and killing them. Like killer bees, this threat was moving north through Central America and soon would reach Texas, if the Federal Government didn't intervene.

Government scientists established a factory in Brownsburg, Texas where they raised male screwworms on rotting meat, radiated the insects to sterilize them, and then released them from airplanes over Mexico. The sterile males mated with fertile females, thus no offspring. The screwworm migration toward Texas was blunted, but the factory that required a sterile suit for entry was the foulest and worse-smelling place I ever had visited.

I looked out over the Geographic editors and realized I never would be invited back to lunch again-and I wasn't. But thank you for this invitation to lunch, and thanks to the American Society of Journalists and Authors for all it has meant to me during my career as a writer.

Related Content:

- Hal Higdon Biography

- Rose Higdon Biography