MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Sometimes finding the right holiday gift can feel impossible. But when you do manage to surprise someone with a perfect present, it feels great. Now we're going to hear an inspiring story of a gift that was very well-received, a strange object that was actually regifted after sitting on a shelf for decades. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: As a journalist, sometimes you despair. Does your reporting ever really make a difference in the world? Well, earlier this year, I did a story on a laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The lab is renowned for its collection of animal eyeballs - more than 50,000 eyes, everything from a duck-billed platypus eye to a two-toed sloth eye.
DICK DUBIELZIG: We think we're the largest collection of animal eyeballs. Maybe we should go to the Guinness people and see (laughter) if they have an answer to that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Dick Dubielzig, who founded the lab. I asked him what eyeballs they didn't have, what was on his wish list.
DUBIELZIG: We have several different kinds of whale eyes already, but we don't have any of the really big whale eyes.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Like an eye from a blue whale, the biggest animal known to have ever existed - which brings us to a health care executive named Tom Davis. In the 1960s, he was a boy growing up in New York on Long Island. Back then, his family used to go visit a friend of his dad's to have dinner.
TOM DAVIS: So while adults had adult conversations - whatever they were - my brother and I would go down to the basement.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And down there was a collection of whaling memorabilia because his dad's friend had briefly worked as a whaler. Davis says as a kid, he was fascinated by the narwhal tusk, the harpoons, the beautiful scrimshaw.
DAVIS: And of course in the corner in a bookshelf, watching me look over all this stuff was a whale's eye.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A huge eyeball floating in a jar. Later on when Davis was 24 years old, he heard that his dad's friend had died. He wrote the family a condolence letter describing his fond childhood memories.
DAVIS: And four weeks later, a soggy box arrives at my doorstep, in which is a whale's eye.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He did what anyone would do.
DAVIS: I put it in my cubicle.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For more than 30 years as Davis moved from office to office, he brought along the whale eye, delighting or revolting his colleagues. Recently, though, as he made another job change, he decided to get rid of it and gave it to a co-worker. That guy googled the words animal eye collection, and up popped my NPR report.
DAVIS: Talking about this place in Wisconsin that collected eyeballs from all over the world and from all different species.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: His friend contacted the lab to say, if you want this thing, it's yours. Just days ago in Wisconsin, a mail carrier delivered a white box sealed with duct tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LEANDRO TEIXEIRA: Just opening up the package.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A video camera recorded as lab director Leandro Teixeira opened it up. He pushed away bubble wrap to reveal the eye floating in a jar of fluid.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, look at that.
TEIXEIRA: Wow. Look at this. That is a big eye.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: With a gloved hand, he gently lifted out a dripping grey mass the size of a grapefruit.
TEIXEIRA: Whoa. That is beautiful. Look at that, guys.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The eye experts marveled at its size, saying it dwarfed the next biggest eyeball in their collection. It looks like it's from a blue whale, and they say it's the most exciting eyeball they've ever received.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just the best Christmas ever.
TEIXEIRA: Best Christmas ever.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUFJAN STEVENS' "EXPLODING WHALE (DOVERMAN REMIX)")
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