John Huey, Sam Walton and the Nickel

Open the back flap of the 1993 Sam Walton autobiography “Made In America” and you’ll find a photo of Walton and John Huey, the journalist and author who worked on the book with him.

Every picture tells a story, of course, and this one happens to tell Huey’s favorite tale about Mr. Sam.

“We were at an airport — he was flying me and photographer Steve Pumphrey around for a story, before we were working on the book,” recounts Huey.

“Sam was off filing a flight plan or something, and Steve said, ‘You know, it’s amazing to me how much money he has, and yet he seems to pay attention to the smallest details of money and purchasing anything.’”

So Pumphrey decided to test his theory. Taking a nickel out of his pocket, Pumphrey tossed it onto the tarmac, just to see if the Wal-Mart boss would even notice it.

“So Sam comes out and I’m standing there in my sunglasses and Steve says, ‘Let me get a picture of you two,’” Huey said. “And Sam says, ‘Where do you want me to stand, on that nickel?’”

Today Huey works as editor-in-chief of Time Inc., but back before the book project he was a writer for Fortune covering Wal-Mart and its founder, who was not always overly fond of journalists. Still, the two developed a working relationship and got to know each other a little, and when Walton finally decided it was time for his autobiography, he asked Huey help him put it together.

Thus Huey moved to Arkansas for three months and spent virtually every day with the ailing retailer, talking for hours in the Walton family living room.

“I would interview him and type notes on my laptop, then drive back to my lonely condo in Bella Vista, Arkansas, in the middle of winter and write all night,” Huey said. “Then I’d go back in the morning and read him what I’d written so he could make his comments.”

Walton never saw the finished product before he died in April 1992, Huey said, but he’d read most if it and was pleased.

“He said he knew that there were going to be a lot of other people writing about him, and he just wanted to make sure he had his version of the story out there,” Huey said.

For his part, Huey says he still tries as a journalist to keep at an arm’s length from Walton and Wal-Mart stories, and has recused himself from coverage by Time’s journalists over the years. He’s not an individual Wal-Mart stockholder either.

“However,” he added, “I live in South Carolina and commute to New York, and I spend a lot of time out in the country, so I am not unfamiliar with Wal-Mart as a shopper.”

Huey says he’s happy with how the Walton book turned out and still finds the Walton family “fascinating,” just like the man with whom he posed for a photo on the airport tarmac more than 20 years ago.

“Of course,” Huey added, “when we were done, he picked up that nickel.”