10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed Me

by Terry Heaton
I'm thoroughly enjoying the History Channel's new series, 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. The History Channel is one of those original niche channels that everybody scoffed at back when cable was in its infancy, but their content keeps getting better and better. And the more they keep making original, evergreen material, the stronger their value proposition will be.

The "10 Days" series has been thought provoking, although I'm not sure their 10 days would've been mine. The premise is interesting, because we all love lists, so I thought I'd share my 10 days in the hopes it'll inspire you to think about yours. What's most interesting to me is how this drill points out the utter foolishness of trying to "manage" your life. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote, "To everything is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven," which immediately brings to mind the notion that life is bigger than me. He also wrote that "time and chance occurs to everyone," and this, I think, is the reality behind "10 Days."

My desk is at a window that overlooks a lovely cul-de-sac this beautiful spring morning. The center of attention in the front yard is a large dogwood tree that is in full bloom. I sit here day-after-day studying, writing and working with clients and in the quiet times admit to myself that I am fortunate above all men to be where I am today.

And I got where I am by accident, or was it the guiding hand of life itself? These are the questions I ask, as I ponder the 10 days that put me here. The truth is I have many "10 days," but some of them are simply too personal to publish and others are, well, nobody else's business.

  1. On April 3, 1956, I watched an F-5 tornado drift from west to east along the horizon beyond my back yard. I was nine years old. The monster had been on the ground for 30 miles, and it completely destroyed the nearby suburb of Standale, Michigan and killed many people. I'll never forget that day — being sent home from school early, the eerie green sky, the air raid sirens howling across the sky, the magnetic draw of the twister, the calm before and after, my mother's fear, the excitement in my heart, and the anger of my father when he discovered I was in the back yard with him.

    Something very deep happened inside me that day. I'm not sure I can put my finger on it, but I think it has to do with awe, mystery, respect and — most importantly — an abiding curiosity about life. I'm not sure I would ever have found my way into the news business had it not been for that day.

  2. I turned 10 later that year and my attention shifted from baseball (loved the Tigers) to a little red-haired tomboy across the street. My love for her was innocent and complete. I wanted to spend all my time with her. I got angry when she wasn't on my baseball team (there were 27 kids our age on the same block). One day in August, she moved away. I didn't know it was coming, and the event broke my heart. She was just gone, and I never really got the chance to say goodbye.

    A man's first broken heart never leaves him. Time heals all wounds and eases the pain of loss, but a broken heart destroys innocence, because it's hard to trust after that. So its impact is lifelong, regardless of what the experts say.

    I think of this as one of my 10 days, because the event turned me inward, where I found my imagination — something that's carried me all my life — and birthed a creativity that continues to this day. The tornado may have paved the way for the news business, but creativity moved my career along. Introspection comes at a price, however, and I've no wish to write about that right now. This day in my history was vastly more influential than I could possibly have imagined at the time.

  3. My mother played the Hawaiian guitar in a band in the 30s, so there was a musical streak in us. You could always count on our row in church to belt out the popular hymns of the day, so it wasn't surprising when my older brother showed up one day with a guitar and the idea to start a folk music group. It was the summer of 1961. I had just graduated from Ridgeview Junior High School, where I sang in a barbershop quartet, so naturally, I wanted to be in the group.

    Back then, the Kingston Trio was a big deal, and one of the guys played a banjo, so that became my obsession. We sang at hootenannies and had a ball, but our musical course took a sharp turn to the south one day in the record department of Thrifty Acres. I was going through the albums and came across a banjo album — a 5-string banjo album. I took it home and heard bluegrass music for the first time ever. I devoted every spare moment to learning how to play those songs, slowing the 33 1/3 albums down to half speed so I could pick out the notes. I drove the household crazy, but my zeal spread to my older brother, who began accompanying me. My younger brother got a mandolin, and soon we were The Heaton Brothers and playing on TV on the morning show with Big Bud Lindeman.

    This introduced me to the television business, and Big Bud was such a clown that I learned that a studio camera was just another person in the room, something that would carry me many years downstream.

  4. Vietnam was raging in the mid-60s, and they didn't give deferments to banjo pickers, so I got my draft notice. I took my Army physical and got orders to proceed to basic training in a week. A friend's father told me I'd have a better chance of survival in a branch of the service that provided beds, so I went to see the Coast Guard recruiter. That day changed my life and continued me down the path that was chosen for me.

    The recruiter apologized and said there were 500 names ahead of me on his list. Then he looked at me and said, "You look familiar. Do I know you?" We talked and discovered that he was a big fan of our little band, that he and his wife watched us on Big Bud's show every Friday morning. He moved me to the top of the list, and I joined the U.S. Coast Guard.

  5. At the end of my enlistment, I was the Radioman-in-charge of the Group Office in Ludington, Michigan. I was responsible for communications in search and rescue missions along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. A few months before my discharge, we were approached by a radio station in the community to do a daily report on search and rescue activities. I was chosen to do the report, so I drove to the radio station every day to record a script I had written. I knew nothing about the radio news business, but there I was.

    One day at the station, while discussing my pending discharge with the news director, he said, "You know, Terry, you could easily do what I do." He encouraged me to visit radio stations across the lake in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, the hometown of my then wife. It's a long story, but I followed his advice and wound up doing news and sports for WOMT, a small A.M. radio station in Manitowoc.

  6. I approached my job creatively and set up a network of radio stations across the state that would feed stories to a central point (WOMT) for distribution back to every station. In other words, I built a news network. This got the attention of Hugh Carlson at WTMJ radio in Milwaukee, and soon I was working there as Hugh's producer.

    WTMJ was a combination radio and television newsroom. I looked around and studied how things worked. The assignment desk was the hub of everything, and there was a kind of organized chaos when the assignment editor rolled in around 8 o'clock. Since I was in at 4 a.m., I took it upon myself to help the assignment editor get things ready for the day. He was pleasantly stunned, and we began a relationship that grew deeper and deeper every day.

    Then one day, he asked me to fill in for him until I went home at noon. I must have done well, because it continued every day thereafter. He was promoted to Assistant News Director and I was named Assignment Editor. I have to say that I was really quite good at this, and it opened many doors for me downstream. In hindsight, it's clear that I was perfectly suited for a job that I never planned to obtain.

  7. One of the open doors was the opportunity to do magazine show story production. This landed me a job in Louisville as the host/producer of PM Magazine. One of the stories I did was about a horse photographer in Lexington, where such photos are worth a bloody fortune. We videotaped Secretariat, who was doing his studly thing at the farm.

    One day a few months later, I got a phone call from a communications student at CBN University (now Regent University). She was doing her Master's thesis on magazine show burnout. She said I had been randomly selected and asked if I would fill out a questionnaire. I did and she called back a few days later for the interview portion. She said my answers indicated I might be a Christian and asked if I'd ever consider working in Virginia Beach. I said no, but she asked me to send a tape, so I did. The first story on the tape was the one about the horse photographer.

    I didn't know that Pat Robertson was a thoroughbred horse fanatic, and a few days later I got a call from the Executive Producer of The 700 Club. They flew me to Virginia Beach and offered me a job. I declined, but when the recession of 1981 cost me my job, I joined CBN. Within a year, I was producer of the program, and while I look back at that experience with mixed feelings these days, I cannot possibly overstate the value of what I learned in the place, including deep lessons about human nature and, of course, high stakes television.

  8. It was hard getting back into local television after life with a televangelist. I was tainted in the minds of most managers, even though they didn't know me or the skills and gifts I could bring to the table. Then one day, a headhunter introduced me to Tom Ramey in Tyler, Texas. The son of an East Texas aristocrat, Tom was GM of KLTV and an evangelical Christian. He was a great friend to me, and it was him taking a chance with my "taint" that gave me my first news director job and brought me back into local television.

    Looking back, the day I met Tom was probably more important than any other day on my list, because I was in a position where I could easily have drifted off the course that brought me where I am today. And Tom's position in the community opened my eyes to one of the most important lessons that helped shape my future. The economy was in the tank, and he took me along to a meeting with two guys in Dallas who studied power and influence in various communities around the world. They made a substantial living helping businesses understand how things "worked" here and there, and I came away from that meeting stunned by the invisible hands in our country that shape and guide everything. This would later influence my understanding of the Creel Committee and the roles that Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays played in the growth and development of the institutional press.

  9. I retired from the news business in 1998 after bottoming out personally. The biz was a part of it, and I really needed to find something else to do. But what? I've heard this question over and over again from people who want to get out but don't have a clue as to what to do.

    I was living alone and had a lot of free time on my hands. One night in late September, I took an online personality test to try and better understand myself and my motivations. The ANSIR Self-Perception Profiler was the test, and so began my real adventures in the world of the internet. I took what life's savings I had and invested in the company, becoming its president. The timing was awful. The internet bubble burst, and I went bankrupt.

    Along the way, however, I learned how to do things an older fellow like me would never learn otherwise. I'm a pretty fair HTML guy, and I understand how the back end of all this stuff works. That day when I took that online test set me down the path that now finds me writing for an industry that desperately needs to understand what's destroying its business model. It was certainly one of my 10 days.

  10. On August 18, 2003, I got an e-mail from a gal who used to work for me at WAAY-TV in Huntsville, Alabama. Alicia Smith wrote these words:

    terry heaton!

    are u coming to reunion?

    where do u live?

    call me, miss u.

    256-653-xxxx.

    smitty,? alicia smith.

    The "reunion" was a summer party being hosted by my old boss, M.D. Smith IV for former employees of his television station. Alicia and I went together and haven't been apart since, and without her support of my dream and my vision, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today. We've made sacrifices that most people wouldn't even dare consider, as we've moved along this road. No other woman I've ever met would've been there with me through it all, which is why I consider the date of that e-mail to be one of the 10 days that unexpectedly changed me.

So there you have it — my list of ten. What's yours? Take a few moments to think about it, because if you're like me, you'll see a pattern to them all. I think each of us can safely say that we wouldn't be "here" if we hadn't been "there" first, so are these kinds of patterns pre-ordained? I don't know, and I don't think it matters. What matters most to me is that there is no way on earth that I or any guidance counselor, mentor of advisor could've possibly chosen the roads that have brought me here.

My advice to young people will always be to plan for the future but blossom where you're planted. You just never know who you'll meet or what you'll learn that will determine a path beyond anything you could've imagined.