Veteran newspaperman Wil Haygood told himself that if he reached 30 phone calls -- and 30 wrong numbers -- he would call it a day.
Then he upped the ante to 60.
But somewhere around call No. 56, the reporter connected with the right Eugene Allen, the one who had worked as a butler at the White House for eight presidents.
The one who would inspire Mr. Haygood's front-page story in The Washington Post three days after President Obama's 2008 election and, nearly five years later, a movie starring Forest Whitaker as a fictionalized version of the butler.
Called "Lee Daniels' The Butler," it opens in theaters Friday and features a who's who of actors including Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams and Alan Rickman.
"Some of it was just stubborn pride. Plus, some of it was this -- if I have to be honest -- I just didn't want to give up," Mr. Haygood said Monday afternoon. He was back in Pittsburgh, where he worked for the Post-Gazette in the early '80s before joining the Boston Globe and then The Washington Post.
Mr. Haygood had sensed in 2008 that Mr. Obama was going to win and he wanted to profile someone who had lived through segregation while in the employ of the White House.
As he notes in a new book, "The Butler -- A Witness to History," he hoped to find a black man or woman who had scrubbed or washed dishes there and bent over "Colored Only" water fountains and yet lived long enough to see a black man elected president.
"I figured there was somebody out there still alive who worked in the White House," he said. "Did I imagine I would find a man who had served eight presidents, been invited to a state dinner, rose from pantry man to chief butler as maitre d' -- did I imagine that? No. No."
After striking out repeatedly, he got a tip in the form of the name of Eugene Allen but no city or state. So, in an endeavor worthy of a movie montage in which the receiver is lifted with hope and returned to the cradle with disappointment, he worked the phone.
And he struck historical gold when he asked the 56th Mr. Allen if he was the man who had worked for three presidents, as Mr. Haygood had been told.
"He said, 'Well, let me correct you about something. First of all, I did work at the White House but it was for eight presidents -- Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. You count 'em.' He was very prideful about that."
Mr. Haygood did a reporter's version of an end-zone dance -- an exuberant smile and fists pumped in victory -- and inquired if he could visit the next day. Mr. Allen's wife, Helene, reminded the White House retiree they had doctors' appointments. So, a date was made for the day after, a Friday.
After meeting the gracious couple at their D.C. home and discovering a treasure trove of memories and memorabilia, Mr. Haygood was riding the subway home that night when the train broke down. After waiting and stewing, he opted to return to the Post newsroom at 11 p.m. and submit a photo request for the Allens for Sunday after church.
"We got the last photograph of this 65-year married couple. We got the last photograph of them together because if that train hadn't broken down, I was going to put in the photo request maybe for Monday."
But Monday would have been too late.
Helene died early that day after spending time on Sunday with the couple's son, Charles. "I'm so happy, I'm so at peace," she told Charles, who jokingly asked if she had hit the lottery.
"No, no, no, there's a reporter who came by and he's going to do a story on my Eugene, on your father. ... Then she turned to some other people who had been visiting and said, 'Hey everybody, I'm getting ready to go upstairs and go to bed. I couldn't be happier.' She went upstairs, went to bed and died," Mr. Haygood said.
Dramatic license has been taken in the movie but director Daniels ("Precious") and screenwriter Danny Strong captured the "essence and soul of Eugene Allen," Mr. Haygood suggests. Also intact is the bond between the butler and his wife -- named Cecil and Gloria Gaines in the movie and portrayed by Mr. Whitaker and Ms. Winfrey.
"You rarely, if ever, see African-American love on the big screen, across an expanse of time. You just don't. Through decades," Mr. Haygood said.
"I was sitting with Oprah Winfrey on the movie set one day, we had lunch together, and she told me the reason she wanted to do this is because this represents the black middle class and many of them were the people who were sending money down South to the civil rights marchers who were thrown in jail, the Freedom Riders and the lawyers who had to bail them out."
The Allens, in fact, regularly gave money to advance the civil rights movement, which propels the movie.
Mr. Haygood's mother knew about the project but didn't live to see the possibly Oscar-bound movie, which also counts him as an associate producer and researcher. As soon as filming finished last summer, Mr. Haygood flew to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, sat with her and told her, "Mom, I met Oprah Winfrey."
To which she responded, "Oh, you did? Aw, that's so beautiful." She was clearly proud.
After all, Mr. Haygood's late grandparents were from the civil rights soaked city of Selma, Ala., as was his mother who died this year. "Selma plays a part in this movie, and so it's deep for me on so many levels."
His maternal grandmother worked as a low-level hotel cook who left the house six days a week at 5 a.m.
"In the summertime, when it was daylight, I would walk her to the bus stop. I marvel that my grandmother stood on her feet 9, 10 hours a day. ... My grandmother was only off Sundays. She never complained and was the light of my life.
"My mother was, too, the light of my life but my mother was so young," he said. "She was almost a kid herself, in a way.
"The people who raised me were people who came out of the Jim Crow South and made their way up North during the Great Migration, stopped in Columbus and got jobs and were the very people down at the bus station in 1972 when I went away to college.
"That's the first in their lineage to go to college, which is why that scene in the movie about the son going off to college is so significant in African-American life. ... Everybody chips in, everybody sort of slips you a little bit of money under the table, and everybody prays for you."
For Mr. Haygood, so much of "The Butler" crystallizes his writing life, which has been about the dynamics of social revolution, race and the beauty of the country. He has penned biographies of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sammy Davis Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson along with a family memoir, "The Haygoods of Columbus: A Love Story."
Last night, he was scheduled to participate in a sold-out showing of "The Butler" at the SouthSide Works Cinema to benefit the Pittsburgh Promise. He planned to wear a keepsake passed on by Eugene and Charles Allen on the morning of President Obama's first inauguration: A John F. Kennedy tie clip.
Asked if the White House had requested a showing of the movie, he proved as discreet as Cecil Gaines and declined to answer. But the president would not have to make 56 calls to request a screening.