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Misfit

by Tyler Hicks


Tom Huang is used to having dinner a little late. When he pulled into his driveway around 8 p.m. after a typically busy Thursday in the newsroom, The Dallas Morning News editor had two things on his mind: food (his typical palate of chicken, rice and tomatoes) and maybe, just maybe, a little bit of that foreign feeling known as relaxation. The blistering 94-degree heat had yet to let up, but the sun was down, and a long day at work meant the Sunday and enterprise editor needed some rest before hitting the pavement again bright and early.

 

Then he got a text from the DMN’s breaking news editor. There was an active shooter downtown, and every reporter near the area needed to get there. Now.

 

The last Tom had heard the Black Lives Matter-led protest was proceeding peacefully. Now shots had been fired, and no one knew by whom. The editor rushed out the door, got into his ’97 white Honda and raced off toward the scene of what would become the deadliest night for police in American history.

 

No one wanted to be in downtown Dallas on the night of July 7, 2016, but that’s exactly where Tom Huang and his fellow Morning News reporters were headed.

 

There was no other choice, and no other work he’d rather be doing — much to the dismay of his parents.

 

•••

 

Huang’s mother and father both fled China in the late 1950s, and then met as graduate students in Taiwan. Shortly after, they came to the United States and started a family in Boston. Tom’s father was a professor of electrical engineering, and expected all four of his children to pursue careers in math and science. For a time, all of them did — including Tom.

 

“I was really interested in and good at a few things,” he says. “Math, reading and writing.” The young Huang fell in love with storytelling by consuming as many comic books as he could, then writing his own. “They were The Supers: A group of genetically mutated cavemen people who were outcasts from society, like the X-Men.

 

“All my favorite characters were misfits.”

 

Eventually, Tom put down the pen and shipped off to MIT to study computer science. While working toward his bachelor’s, he joined the staff on The Tech, a twice-weekly newspaper on campus. “Originally, it was just a way to keep writing,” he recalls. “I had never met a journalist, and had no intention of ever becoming a journalist.” But he stayed on staff even after he graduated and began his master’s work, and he eventually started to take on more complicated stories.

 

Cambridge, Massachusetts, was fraught with homelessness in the late 1980s, so Tom set out to chronicle the struggles of the homeless that lived just a few miles from the MIT campus. After spending a day on desolate streets and in abandoned warehouses, he knew he couldn’t go back to a comp sci lab. “Computer science is a great line of work, but it didn’t inspire me in the way that going out and reporting did.”

 

Tom decided to pursue a career as a journalist — a move that “shocked and disappointed” his mother and father. They had invested a small fortune in his education, and now he was plunging into the unknown. The decision irrevocably changed his relationship with his parents.

 

“Early on, I had to distance myself from them. I knew that if I stayed close to them, I would be tempted to fall back into what they wanted me to do. So I had to be on my own.”

 

But he wouldn’t have to be on his own for long. Around the same time he told his parents his decision, Tom saw a flyer for a journalism internship fair at the Newsday headquarters on Long Island. It would be the first step toward the career he wanted.

 

“I interviewed with around 30 people in one day, but no one was really interested – except for one guy from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.”

 

The editor was confused why a computer scientist was at a career fair for journalists, and questioned Tom about the future of computers in reporting. He was so impressed with this kid from MIT that he hired him for the summer.

 

Over the next 15 months, Tom lived out of two suitcases while writing for four different newspapers in four different cities: Cleveland; Norfolk, Virginia; Roanoke, Virginia; and Greensboro, North Carolina. “It was probably the hardest time in my life. I had to learn the ropes while hopping from one newsroom to the next, learning the different beats and editors.”

 

The youngster got a crash course in reporting when he had to go to the scene of the GreekFest riots of 1989. Tom, then writing for the Virginian-Pilot, reported to Virginia Beach wearing his glasses and carrying a notebook, and soon lost both: A rioter snatched his notebook and tore it to pieces, and Tom honestly doesn’t remember how he lost his glasses — or how he got enough material for a story.

 

Still, he cites these turbulent 15 months as the time where he became a reporter.

 

Kelly McBride interned with Tom during this time, and still remembers meeting the meek kid with the glasses.

 

“I thought I was a hotshot from Mizzou who knew it all, and there was no way this guy could hang with me,” she says. “But I learned so much from Tom, and I’m still learning from him. And he bought us all Bob Dylan tickets.”

 

The meek, bespectacled Bob Dylan fan was hundreds of miles away from his family, friends and the life he knew, but Tom Huang was happy.

 

Nearly 30 years later, the veteran reporter still smiles when he talks about those two suitcases, and chuckles when he thinks about what the guy from Cleveland asked him that one winter in Long Island: “He wanted to know if I ever thought robots would be able to replace journalists.”

 

Tom said no — you need humans to tell human stories.

 

•••

 

Tom’s 1997 White Honda hit a wall of traffic as he tried to maneuver toward the shooting. Police had already blocked off many of the roads leading downtown, and an officer was yelling at drivers and pedestrians, demanding they head back the opposite direction. Tom pulled a U-turn, ditched the Honda and walked toward the scene of the crime.

 

Meanwhile, two of Tom’s former interns were racing around the city. Sarah Mervosh and Charlie Scudder were interviewing witnesses, chasing down leads and coordinating with the dozen other Morning News interns and staffers scattered across Dallas.

 

“All I remember was pure chaos,” Mervosh says. “Everything was one big, chaotic blur.” The fact that something like this happened just miles from where they work took a toll on both her and Scudder — a local boy. But they persevered, thanks in part to the advice of their former supervisor.

 

“You don’t really think about this happening in your own backyard,” Scudder says. “But it’s our job to go out there and bear witness.”

 

Scudder cites “Papa Huang’s” mentorship as a crucial reason why he was able to cover the chaos and cope with the aftermath.

 

“Tom is focused on making sure your career is alright, but also that you’re alright, too,” he says. “Not many people care about both.”

 

Mervosh knows that without Tom’s tutelage she might not be the writer she is today — the writer that was able to crank out multiple stories in the 12 hours between Micah Johnson’s first shot and the first ray of sunlight. “Tom showed me that sometimes you have to let your emotion drive the story,” she says. “And he pushes you to go places you don’t want to go.”

 

Like Mervosh, Scudder doesn’t remember many details from that night — but he does remember running into Tom. “He was as composed as ever,” he recalls. “And we needed that.” As the two reporters conversed with some coworkers back in the newsroom, breaking news flashed on a nearby TV. A reporter went live with the news that four police officers had died.

 

“Tom stopped, turned to the TV, and everyone else followed his lead,” Scudder says. “He just stared at the TV for a few moments, and you could tell he was trying to register what happened. But then he got right back to it.”

 

It wasn’t his first brush with tragedy.

 

•••

 

At the end of his 15-month trial-by-fire, Tom found a home in Dallas. It was the end of 1993, and the young reporter kick started his Morning News career as a features writer. Roughly a year later, Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in American history. The Morning News dispatched Tom to Oklahoma City.

 

“I remember having a moment where I wondered if this was really what I wanted to do,” Tom recalls of his time in Oklahoma. He was tasked with talking to victims’ family members, and one day, he went to a house full of orphaned children. He wasn’t the only reporter on the story — a TV news crew had followed him there in the hopes of capturing the children’s’ reactions as they processed the deaths of their parents.

 

“I didn’t know if that was something I wanted to be a part of,” he remembers. “It wasn’t what I signed up for.”

 

When he returned to Dallas, Tom continued to write features and the offbeat page-turners that would eventually earn him and future intern Mike Mooney the unofficial title of “freak beat” reporter. But he was far from finished as a national and international reporter for the Morning News.

 

In the late ’90s, he traveled to Bosnia and stayed at a makeshift refugee camp for three weeks, and after 9/11, he flew to Manhattan with DMN photographer Richard Pruitt in tow. Tom and Pruitt walked the length of Broadway, stopping to chat with anyone that wanted to share their story, their views or simply a joke.

 

Stories like these always grounded Tom, and made him remember why he fell in love with reporting. “As journalists, we’re trying to understand things,” he says. “Oftentimes we see things that we can’t understand, but if you dig a little deeper, you can help make sense of it.”

 

But his love of reporting isn’t the only thing keeping him around.

 

Dave Tarrant, Tom’s colleague for over two decades, has high praise for the different strengths his old friend brings to the table. Specifically, the longtime Dallas reporter remembers one story that showed how powerful Tom’s writing can be.

 

“It was this story about two brothers, and how one of them was caring for the other as he died,” Tarrant says. “The way he wrote it showed how much empathy and care he brought to each story, and that’s stayed with me for twenty years.”

 

That’s not all Tarrant picked up from Tom over the years.

 

“The most important things I learned from Tom were all about how you have to take care of yourself,” he says. “You have to know when to take time, and you always have to know when to be with your family.”

 

Ultimately, Tarrant believes Tom’s talents extend beyond the newsroom — and into the classroom.

 

“More than anything, Tom is a teacher,” he says.

 

For the past ten years, Tom has flexed those teaching muscles as a faculty member at the Poynter Institute. Every year, he travels to Florida to teach the rising crop of young journalists in courses in ethics, diversity, writing and leadership. When he first set foot on the campus in St. Petersburg, fellow teacher Roy Peter Clark joked about how different the two of them were.

 

“I’m loud and boisterous and theatrical in the classroom, while we always used to tell Tom he needs a mic — and not just in the classroom,” Clark says. But the veteran writer knows that Tom’s temperament and style is an asset to Poynter and newsrooms in general.

 

“Tom has the hardware and the software,” Clark says. “One day we’ll be able to look back and see the family tree of editors and writers he created.”

 

In Dallas, Tom’s family tree has flourished since his time as a features editor to his new post as the leader of audience engagement. Along the way, he’s helped writers tighten countless stories, all the while taking a hands-on editing approach.

 

“My time with Tom was the only time I ever had an editor in the same room with me,” former “freak beat” writer Mike Mooney says. The duo wrote stories about Goths, gay rugby and real-life fight clubs, but Mike’s favorite Tom story is the day he came into the office in full-on Klingon regalia. “We had just finished a story about a Klingon club, and he walked into the office like he had just walked off the set of Star Trek,” Mooney recalls with laughter. “I think he and Mike Merschel still hang Star Trek ornaments on the Merschel family Christmas tree every year.”

 

Fact-check: They do.

 

Everyone in the family tree has some kind of Tom story, and it typically involves cats or editing quirks.

 

Mervosh remembers turning in a story to Tom without asking what beer the subject drank: “He made me call back and ask, and now I’ll never forget that guy loves to drink Dos Equis.”

 

“He never lets you be satisfied with X and Y,” Scudder says. “You always have to get Z.”

 

As for his immediate family, Tom keeps in close contact with his sisters — computer scientists-turned-full-time moms — and his younger brother Roger, a computer scientist who, like Tom, jumped ship for journalism. He’s now the top editor at a website that focuses on environmental issues. Tom is unmarried and has no kids of his own, but hopes to change that someday.

 

“I’d love to get married and have kids; it just hasn’t happened yet.”

 

He can’t pinpoint an exact reason why it hasn’t worked out with any of his past girlfriends, but it may have something to do with his stubbornness.

 

“Maybe the ’97 white Honda tells you all you need to know.”

 

The car has been stolen (and returned) twice, and Tom has no plans to move on. He’s loyal, but also stuck in his ways. He dated journalist Anne Bothwell for eight years, but the two broke up when Tom took the fellowship at Poynter.

 

“We’re both very independent people, and we weren’t able to figure it out. But she’s a great friend, and a great person.”

 

Tom’s inability to settle down worries McBride, who is hopeful that the reporter she’s seen blossom from quiet intern to transformative teacher will eventually find someone.

 

“Above all, I hope this story gets Tom a date,” she says, only half-joking. McBride recounts a time when Tom traveled to Turkey in the winter, and wrote about his journey in a Facebook post. “The story was classic Tom because he went to a place that makes him uncomfortable, which is what we tell journalists to do. But, it’s New Year’s Eve and he’s alone. And that makes me sad.”

 

McBride isn’t alone in her hopes that Tom eventually finds a wife — his parents have been asking him about it for decades. Even so, his relationship with Mom and Dad has improved in recent years, even if they’re still hoping he returns to school and attains a Ph.D. Even though Roger is also a journalist, the family has never talked about writing or reporting.

 

“I don’t think they understood what it is I do, and I’ve never showed them any of my work.”

 

Tom admits that this may be slightly immature, but old habits die hard.

 

“I got to a place where I didn’t want to ever have to prove myself to them, and I guess I’m still there.”

 

Both of his parents are in hospice care, and Tom has written extensively about his new role as a caregiver. In a recent piece, he visited his hometown to attend a ceremony for his father. He watched as decades of his dad’s old students gathered to honor Dr. Huang, and later eyed his mother speaking with her physical therapist.

 

“I’m proud of my children,” his mom said.

 

“They tell me that pretty often nowadays, but I guess I’m still not used to hearing that.”

 

Tom smiles just thinking about it.

 

•••

 

There wasn’t a lot of time to chat with coworkers in the days and weeks after July 7. True to form, Tom didn’t talk much — but he did check in on Scudder.

 

“He knew I grew up here, and he knew it was hard for me to see,” Scudder says. “Whenever he could, he pulled me aside to see how I was doing.”

 

Around that time, Mervosh remembers the editorial staff abandoning their offices and taking up seats next to reporters and interns. She remembers Tom being alongside the team every step of the way.

 

“A lot of people get into this business because they want to save the world, but it’s not just about the stories you write,” she says. “It’s about the people, too.”

 

“Tom showed me there’s more than one way to save the world.”

 

Apart from his check-ins with colleagues, Tom didn’t talk much — he wrote.

 

In an essay published one week after what was supposed to be a quiet Thursday night at home, Tom reflected on why he chose to leave his office and sit with his Supers — the newbies, veterans and mentees who he had no plans to stop mentoring.

 

“I want to be in the middle of the newsroom,” he wrote. “I want to see everything, I want to hear everything, I want to remember everything. I want to absorb the laughter and the shouting and the tears.

 

“Because when I’m old and decrepit and they have to drag me out of the newsroom, I’ll at least know one thing: This is what I loved.”

 

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by Tyler Hicks
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