This 95-year-old vet goes viral with San Jose Mercury News video

There’s a reasonable chance that you or someone you know has seen this video. It shows runners breaking off in the middle of a race to thank World War II veteran Joe Bell for his service. Bell was watching the race in uniform from the sidewalk outside his home.

Since the video went online Sunday, it has been picked up by dozens of media outlets — including Yahoo’s front page, Good Morning America, The Today Show and ESPN — and racked up more than one million shares online.

As of Wednesday morning, the online clip had logged more than 1.2 million views. To put that in perspective, all of Digital First Media’s Tout accounts logged just over 1.8 million views in all of February. Suffice it to say, this video is a bona fide viral sensation, especially in the San Jose community.

The viral nature of this video is even more remarkable when you consider that the reporter who captured it, Julia Prodis Sulek of the San Jose Mercury News, was not on assignment. She was in her house, watching the moment unfold from her window, when she realized it needed to be captured and shared.

She explains in an email to Inside Thunderdome:

I woke up to the sounds of the runners in the morning. I looked out my window and wondered why some of them were running on the sidewalk. I looked down the street and saw Joe Bell in uniform with runners shaking his hand. I was so touched and wondered whether I should run out in my fuzzy pink bathrobe. I put clothes on instead, figuring I had missed the moment anyway, and ran outside. It was a lull at the time, but with Joe cheering people on, others cheered him back. So I started filming that. And amazingly, one runner peeled off to shake his hand, then another and another. What I loved about the tribute to Joe is that those tributes kept coming in waves throughout the race. It wasn’t like a long procession with everyone following each other. It would stop, then organically start up again. Loved it, and happy to have captured it.

Perhaps what makes the video so appealing to viewers around the country is that it captures a raw moment of heart-warming honesty. In this followup story, Matt Bell (Joe’s son) tells Julia, ”There was nothing staged about it. It was an honest response from honest people. We don’t see that too much.”

Here are some clips of Julia and Joe recounting the moment. These were filmed by Gary Reyes, also of the San Jose Mercury News.

Joe Bell explains what encouraged him to go outside and watch the race from the sidewalk. “At 95, you like to see people, you know?”

Here is a partial list (in no particular order) of the media coverage the video has received since catching the Internet’s jet stream.

ABC NEWS: Runners stop mid-race to thank WWII veteran
NBC NEWS: Spontaneous tribute to WWII veteran goes viral
Mashable: Runners stopping mid-race to thank a WWII vet will leave tears in your eyes
Bleacher Report: Runners stop mid-race to pay tribute to 95-year-old WWII vet
USA Today: Runners’ surprise tribute to WWII veteran goes viral
Runner’s World: WATCH: Runners pay tribute to veteran during race
Today: Runners detour race to thank 95-year-old World War II veteran
The Blaze: He was supposed to be cheering them on, but what the runners did for this WWII vet is incredible

In retrospect, this is one of those heart-warming videos that seems tailor-made for the Upworthys of the world. But it isn’t always easy to determine what readers will care about. Sometimes you have something that seems like a logical candidate to become a viral sensation, such as this “iChicken” video, also from the San Jose Mercury News. But maybe the stories people want to share are happening right now outside your window. Don’t let those pass you by.

What do you think? What lessons or conclusions can be drawn from this video’s success? What about the video captured the internet’s attention this week? Would the results have been different if covered by a smaller news outlet in a different community? Would the results have been different on a different week? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Chris March

By Chris March

Chris March is the community engagement manager for Digital First Media and the editor of Inside Thunderdome. Contact him by email at or follow his shenanigans on Twitter: @marchmcfly.

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