A Poetic Pick-Me-Up

updated 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

TWAS SOME WEEKS BEFORE CHRISTMAS in 1981 when Torn Hegg, an unemployed actor, then 29, was invited to read at a celebration at his Minneapolis church. In a trancelike state—"It came through me in some way I can't explain," Hegg says—he began scribbling rhymes. Three days later he'd produced a 164-line poem about the joy a young man feels after reluctantly visiting his elderly aunt during the holidays.

The church audience gave Hegg's poem, titled A Cup of Christmas Tea, a standing ovation. Encouraged, he submitted it to several New York City publishers, only to be told, he recalls, "Poems don't sell, seasonal stuff has too short a shelf life, and who is Tom Hegg?" By 1982, Hegg says he was in the "depths of despair." Then he received a note from actress Helen Hayes, to whom he'd sent the book. "Your poem brought tears of joy to my eyes," she wrote.

Energized once more, Hegg borrowed $10,000 from his parents, enlisted illustrator Warren Hanson and published 5,000 copies of the poem himself. Then he distributed them to local gift shops. Within weeks the little book sold out and was being read by radio hosts across the country. By the next Christmas, Hegg had found a small publisher. Two years later, Tea was picked up by Minneapolis trade publisher Ned Waldman, who wept when he first read the book. "I remembered the woman who raised me until I was adopted at age 5," he says. Other readers have told Hegg, in hundreds of letters, that his book has moved them to "make visits and phone calls they've put off for years," he says.

A drama teacher at Minneapolis's Breck School since 1983, Hegg has used his royalties to move with his wife, Peg, 40, and their son, Adam, 12, to a bigger house. Hegg, who suffers from periodic depression, plans to contribute some profits to research on the illness. "This book gave me a ray of hope," he explains. "It literally saved my life."

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