It was a crow that first caught Frank Glick's attention. It was flying around erratically, so Glick got out his Nikon camera and followed it. It was around 6 a.m. on a hazy spring day and he was driving through Fort Snelling National Cemetery because he was early for a training meeting at Delta Airlines, where he works.
Glick is an amateur photographer, but he always carries his camera, just in case. So he followed the crow, in some cultures a symbol of good luck and magic, until he saw it: a huge eagle perched on a tombstone, its eyes alert, its head craned, looking for prey. In the foreground, dew glistened on the grass.
Glick got his shot.
He didn't think too much about the photo, until he showed it to a co-worker, Tom Ryan, who e-mailed it to his brother, Paul.
Paul wondered whether a relative of the soldier might want a copy. The tail of the eagle partially covered the man's name, but Paul did some research and looked up the soldier's name in newspaper obituaries. The eagle had landed on the grave of Sgt. Maurice Ruch, who had been a member of the St. Anthony Kiwanis Club, the obituary said.
Paul called the club, and it put him in touch with Jack Kiefner, Ruch's best friend. When Glick took his photo, he never could have guessed how much it was going to mean to Kiefner and Ruch's widow, Vivian.
One day this week, I met with Kiefner and Vivian Ruch in her St. Anthony condo. The actual print would be delivered later that day, but Vivian held a copy of the statuesque photo and her voice broke as she talked about Maurie, his nickname, who died from a form of Parkinson's in 2008 at age 86.
"I'm sorry," she said. "This is very emotional for me."
Maurie graduated from college in mechanical engineering in December of 1941 and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Known for his keen eye, he became a rifle marksman and was stationed in the Aleutian Islands. He served four years in the military and earned a bronze star.
To those who knew Maurie, he was a calm and deliberate giant. He stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall, with broad shoulders, but he was also unassuming and unpretentious.
"Used to call him Mr. Precise," because of his love of order and knack for fixing things, said Vivian. The Ruches had a rotary telephone long after they became obsolete because Maurie scavenged parts and kept the phone working.
"He could work a slide rule like nobody else," said Kiefner, who was a manager at Honeywell when Maurie was there as an engineer. Kiefner and Maurie were friends for more than 60 years. Not many people can say that anymore.
Maurie also loved nature and photography, so "he would have absolutely loved this picture," Vivian said. "I told him his first love was his rifle."
On a rainy morning, Vivian spread photos of Maurie in the service, and the two old friends sat and ate banana bread and talked about a man they both loved.
They got that opportunity because a guy they didn't know, Frank Glick, caught a special moment, and he and his friends took the time to seek them out and share the photo.
I told Vivian that some cultures believe the eagle is a symbol, not only of patriotism and dignity, but a messenger between heaven and earth. She nodded solemnly.
"I'd say the eagle had a very good eye when he landed on Maurie, and he was respected," she said.
"I miss him," said Vivian as she picked up the photo. "He was a good man and a good provider."
"The eagle couldn't have picked a better person," said Kiefner. He paused. "This has been kind of fun hasn't it?"
Tears welled in Vivian's eyes.
"Yes, it's been wonderful."
Then it began.
Mail and calls from Minnesota, then Chicago, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina and finally, Afghanistan. The picture and story had gone viral. I noticed 11,000 people had recommended it on Facebook.
I forwarded scores and scores of requests for reprints to Glick. Unfortunately, he had become ill and has been in the hospital off and on since the column ran. Mail piled up.
"It's been pretty hard to keep up with this stuff," Glick said from his hospital bed. "It's pretty amazing what's going on."
Requests for the photo, and use of the story, have come from the Department of Veterans Affairs, military publications, Arlington National Cemetery. Soldiers in Afghanistan have inquired about the photo, including some from the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, stationed at Bagram Airfield.
"I sent a good-sized one to a base in Afghanistan because they wanted to build a memorial to members of their unit who had been killed," Glick said.
This letter, from Atlanta, was typical:
"You have no idea just how much this photo and story mean to so many of us who have served. We do not ask for special treatment; we do not ask for your gratitude; we don't even ask for your patience when we occasionally 'geeze' with old stories. We would like to have some understanding just how much service to this great nation means to each of us. Your picture and story show me that some do understand."
One person wrote a poem based on the photo, another wrote a song and a third sent me a short story based on the column. Veterans have called the Fort Snelling cemetery, crying.
Not surprisingly, there were few readers who insisted that the photo was a fake. The bird was too big, they said. There's an aura of light on one side that reflects the use of Photoshop, said others.
"It's not Photoshopped," said Glick. "I did crop it [as did the newspaper]. If I had Photoshopped it, I wouldn't have the eagle's tail covering the name."
He also may have put the eagle on a different headstone to make the composition perfect, he said. "It's a good picture, but it could have been a much greater picture."
Glick took the photo with an older Nikon camera and a multi-purpose lens. He took more than 60 shots of the bird at the cemetery, from different angles and locations. Some are sharp, some are blurry. Some are not very well composed.
"But I just like the feel of this one."
Star Tribune photographers studied the original that Glick sent me and said there's nothing conclusive to say whether it is faked. They also looked at a photo of the bird from the front and said it seemed legitimate, and consistent with the other photo.
As for the size of the bird?
The tombstones rise about 22 inches from the ground. Eagles can grow to 37 inches tall. So the proportion seems right.
I asked a cemetery employee if they ever see eagles.
"All the time," she said. Her boss concurred.
Glick's significant other, Jo Edwards-Johns, got a call from Glick shortly after he shot the photos because he was so excited. She has tried to keep up with the mail between trips to the hospital to be with Glick.
Meanwhile, the woman who received the free print, Vivian Ruch, has likewise been flooded with calls.
"I can't tell you the impact it has had," she said. "It's because it's just not about Maurie, it's about all of them [soldiers]."
"It's just got some quality about it," said Glick. "Sure, I wouldn't mind getting rich off of it, but that probably isn't happening. It makes people feel better. It makes them feel warm and fuzzy. That's what it's for."