Monday, May 14, 2012

The Book of Love

                Sixty four years ago today my parents stood together in a simple wedding at my Aunt Nellie’s home in Illinois to pledge their love and to promise a life together.  They proudly upheld those vows for 62 years, until Mom’s passing in 2010.  Their 25th anniversary had been greeted with a surprise party, and their 50th had brought the extended family and neighborhood friends together for a wonderful luncheon.   But their 60th anniversary posed more of a problem.  In 2008 my mother was in the grips of advanced dementia, robbing her of both physical and mental capabilities.  Most of her days were spent in a quiet fog, sleeping or staring blankly out the window.  Although she still new us, day to day events seemed lost to her, and I was not convinced she would even know it was their anniversary, let alone grasp the significance of it being their 60th.  On top of that, both of my parents’ immediate families had passed as had most of their friends.  So there were few left to invite to celebrate with us.   I feared that the day would be difficult for my father because I knew it was a milestone he had wanted to attain, but he would not be sharing it with his beautiful bride in the fashion he had always envisioned.  I wanted to find a way to honor their achievement and at the same time bring a little joy into my father’s life.
The wedding day
                It was about a year prior that I launched a plan which turned out to be a much bigger success than I had ever imagined.  The seeds of the plan originated a decade earlier when my sister had written to a few celebrities to see if they would inscribe a picture to my parents for their 50th anniversary.  A couple, such as Bob Hope and Dolly Parton, sent signed photos and Wynonna Judd even wrote them a brief congratulatory note.  It was nothing big, but it was fun for my parents to receive mystery envelopes from time to time with an autograph inside.  One very unexpected result of this was a surprise phone call from then First Lady, Hillary Clinton.  At the time the White House had a policy of sending a card to anyone celebrating a 50th anniversary, so my sister had written requesting one.  What we did not realize was that evidently, from time to time, a card was chosen at random and the First Lady would call the couple personally.  So on the afternoon of their anniversary the phone suddenly rang, and Dad answered to a person asking him to hold for the First Lady.  Then Hillary came on the line to wish them a happy anniversary and to say she was sorry “Bill” could not call because he was out of the country on business.  My father was quite skeptical and almost made some unfortunate jokes at the first couple’s expense, but thankfully he thought better of it.  Mrs. Clinton was extremely friendly and gracious, even though she was talking to a pair of incredulous, old people who were also very hard of hearing.  I suspect the conversation was quite a challenge for her, but she stuck it out.
My parents at the time of their 50th anniversary
                I started thinking that perhaps I could try something similar but on a much larger scale and more personalized.   I started making a list of celebrities and politicians, both local and national, who had meant something to my parents in one way or another through the years.  I then researched their addresses and began a letter writing campaign in which I explained my parents’ life together, their achievement of 60 years of marriage, and the struggles then facing them both.  In addition, I tried to incorporate how that particular person had touched my parents’ life or our family’s life through the years.  In the end, I asked if they could send a brief note of congratulations and included a self-addressed-stamped-envelope to make it as easy as possible.  In doing so I had hoped to garner a few notes to share with Dad on their anniversary.  It was my way of trying to lift his spirits on a rather bittersweet day.
                I sent out about a dozen letters initially, and it wasn’t long before I recognized one of my SASE’s in the mail.  I opened it to find a very nice, full page, hand written note by the former game show host, Bob Barker.  Wheel of Fortune was one of the shows my mother had continued to watch until her final days at home, so I figured Bob Barker was someone she might recognize.  While I had always expected to receive either a picture with “Happy Anniversary” written on it or a simple one line greeting scrawled upon a card or scrap of paper, I was caught off guard by such a personal touch.   I was thrilled beyond words, so I immediately sat down and wrote another dozen or so individuals to see what would follow.  The response was overwhelming and encouraged me to write more and more.  I now want to share with you the generosity and caring of a group of strangers whom I believe most of us would have regarded as being too “big” or “important” to respond to such an obscure request, but who opened their hearts in a remarkable way.  I have not shared this broadly with the public until now because I did not want anyone to take advantage of these particular individuals.  However, many of them have since passed on themselves, so I feel I am free to discuss it.  Since I can no longer remember the order in which they were received, I will group them into broad categories for discussion.  I wish I could reprint each and every letter and photo, but there are just too many.
The letter that started the whole thing.

                The first broad category would be that of political figures.  I sent a letter to former President Carter (because I knew my father admired him as a decent man,) as well as to the governor of Indiana, to Hoosier senators and to past and present mayors of Indianapolis.  I also included a letter to the current mayor of my father’s hometown of Tuscola, Illinois.  I suspect most of my replies in this category were secretarial, but who knows for sure.  In the end, I received a letter from Jimmy Carter saying he and Rosalyn wished my parents a “happy  62nd wedding anniversary” (which was actually the number of years the Carters had been married,) a note from former Vice President Al Gore sending his and Tipper’s congratulations, and letters from Governor Mitch Daniels and Senator Evan Bayh.  Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard was running late with his letter, so he had his secretary personally deliver it along with lapel pins in the shape of the key to the city to my home.  A much beloved former mayor of Indianapolis was William Hudnut III, and he sent a very personal note discussing my mother’s health issues and wishing the pair a very happy anniversary.  Senator and former astronaut John Glenn sent an interesting note.  Certain numbers got mixed up in his replay so the letter was dated May 14, 1948 (my parents’ wedding day) and he congratulated them on 85 years of marriage (which was actually Dad’s age at the time.)  Former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, who my father held in high esteem, sent a nice hand written note congratulating my folks and thanking Dad for his past military service. 
Jimmy Carter's note
John Glenn's "interesting" response
Colin Powell's surprising reply
                But one of the more fun replies in the political category was that of Tuscola mayor Daniel Kleiss.  He sent me a letter thanking me for writing and informed me he was declaring May 14, 2008 to be “Walter and Ruby Fifer Day” in Tuscola.  This came with an official proclamation with many statements outlining my parents’ life, announcing the special day in Tuscola and wishing them a happy anniversary.  It was one of a few truly unexpected but incredibly uplifting surprises that I received in this endeavor.
Mayor Kleiss's proclamation of Walter and Ruby Fifer Day in Tuscola
                The next broad category is that of general entertainers such as comedians and actors.  This is where the old standby autographed picture was a little more prevalent.  I received autographed photos with additional anniversary greetings from such individuals as Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Dick Van Dyke, Tim Conway, Debbie Reynolds (who made her first movie appearance the year my parents were wed,) Lauren Bacall, Fess Parker (early on he played Davey Crocket in the television series that Dad and my brother had watched and later Daniel Boone in the series that Dad and I shared together) and game show host Bob Eubanks (The Newlywed Game being an old family favorite.)  Having grown up watching I Love Lucy, I decided to write their children to see if they would add their greetings.  Lucie Arnaz wrote a nice note discussing her parents’ 20 year marriage, her then 28 year marriage to Larry Lukinbill and his parents’ 53 years together.  These personal touches really meant a lot to me, and I think they meant something to Dad, too.  Her brother, Desi personalized a photo to them.  Fellow Hoosier Florence Henderson sent them an autographed photo as well as a second personalized photo from the entire “Brady Bunch.”  The aging exercise guru, Jack LaLanne, who I used to watch in the mornings when I got up for school, sent a personalized photo of himself flexing his muscles.  And Graham Kerr, who my mother and I knew as the “Galloping Gourmet,” sent an inscribed photo of him and his wife wishing them a happy 60th and extending their prayers.  Tom and Dick Smothers, known collectively as The Smothers Brothers” sent a note congratulating the couple and saying how they had been working together for 49 years and hoped they would still be doing so at the 60 year mark.  It was always interesting to see how each celebrity would try to relate some aspect of his or her life to my parents or to highlight important parts of my letter to them.
Comedian Don Rickles
Nice note from Lucie Arnaz
Bob Newhart
Dick Van Dyke- a longtime family favorite
One of Florence Henderson's replies on behalf of the Brady Bunch
                A couple of people in this category stand out to me, however.  The first was Kelly Stewart, the daughter of Jimmy Stewart.  My father always loved Jimmy Stewart, the actor, but he had an even higher regard for Jimmy Stewart, the war hero.  My father was a radio-operator on B-24 Liberators in England in WWII.  Jimmy Stewart was a B-24 pilot at a base not far from Dad’s.  While he could have safely spent his service selling war bonds and making propaganda films, he chose instead to take an active part in the war effort, risking his life as a command pilot.  Obviously, Mr. Stewart had already passed by the time of my parents’ anniversary, but I tracked down one of his daughters and wrote her.  She responded with a handwritten letter to my parents.  Additionally, she included with the letter an inscribed copy of a biography of her father.  She wrote in it that if he were here he would join her in wishing them a happy anniversary. 
The note from Jimmy Stewart's daughter, Kelly
                Another special response in this category was from Nick Clooney.  Most people now know him as George Clooney’s father or Rosemary Clooney’s brother, but to my family he was the guy who came over from Kentucky to host the Indiana State Fair show in my childhood days.  He, too, chose to send a hand written note with words of encouragement to my mother and an uplifting message to my father, calling him his “newest hero.”  It was very personal and remains one of the favorite replies I received.
One of my favorite responses (Nick Clooney)
                There were a number of singers and musicians who also responded.  My parents were country music fans, and together we had seen many of the older performers.  So of course, I wrote to several that we had seen in concert or to whom my mother had listened while playing albums during her housework.  Roy Clark sent a signed photo, as did Andy Williams, George Strait, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.  Barbara Mandrell personalized a photo for them, but she also sent a note talking about the World War II airman and the cute little punch press operator he had married.  A country singer who started out locally in Indiana before becoming a Grammy awarding winning artist in Nashville is Steve Wariner.  Steve wrote a note (on Veteran’s Day) first thanking my father for his war service and stating that he had just called his own Dad that day to thank him, too.  He then went on to congratulate the pair, acknowledged my father’s struggles and asked him to give Mom a hug for him. Another country star, Mel Tillis sent a personalized photo, but he also included one of his cd’s as a gift.  It would be a prophetic move because when Mom passed and we were looking for music for her services, Dad asked us to play Mel’s song, Beyond the Sunset, in which the singer is speaking to his spouse who has passed before him and telling her to walk slowly so he can catch up when his day also comes. 

“Should you go first and I remain to walk the road alone,
I'll live in memory's garden dear with happy days we've known.
In spring I'll wait for roses red and shades of lilacs blue,
And in early fall when brown leaves call I'll catch a glimpse of you.

Should you go first and I remain to finish with the scroll
No lenghtening shadows shall creep in to make this life seem droll
We've known so much of happiness yes we've had our cup of joy
And memory is one gift of God that death cannot destroy.

Should you go first and I remain there's one thing I'd have you do
Walk slowly down that long path for soon I'll follow you.”

Mel Tillis who shared his CD with my folks.
It was a perfect song for the occasion and would never have been known to us had not Mr. Tillis shared his cd with us.

Jimmie the Kid back in my Mom's youth
     As a boy, I enjoyed looking through my parents’ box of old photos.  Among the snapshots of long lost relatives was an autographed picture of a young boy in cowboy attire playing with a dog by an old wooden fence.  It was autographed by Jimmy the Kid.  My mother had seen him perform as a young man, and decades later he was still entertaining people under the name of Little Jimmie Dickens.  So I wrote him and he sent back a current photo with a greeting to my parents.  One of my mother’s favorite singers had always been Eddy Arnold, and the aging singer pecked out a greeting on an old typewriter and sent it back.  Brenda Lee also sent a hand written note congratulating the pair.  Don Reid, one of the Statler Brothers, sent a nice letter, as did singer and actor, Pat Boone.  My wife and I have long followed a female pianist from Wisconsin named Lorie Line.  She was kind enough to inscribe a photo, as well. 
Little Jimmie Dickens today
Note from singer Brenda Lee
Letter from local boy who made it big, Steve Wariner
Letter from my Mom's favorite, Eddy Arnold
      Watching the news had always been a part of our television routine, so I wrote some anchormen, both local and national.  Tom Brokaw sent a brief, hand written note congratulating Mom and Dad and thanking them for being part of “the greatest generation.”  My Dad especially loved Tim Russert, and he, too, quickly jotted them a congratulatory note.  A longtime local news anchor, Mike Ahern, sent an amusing but very heartfelt handwritten letter, and a favorite weatherman, Bob Gregory, likewise replied with a brief note.  The former Today Show host, Jane Pauley, was once a local news woman here in Indianapolis, so I had to include her.  In reply, she also sent a letter.  But no reply stands out more than that of one of the greatest news men and journalists of my life, Walter Cronkite.  Discussing his own marriage to his wife, Betsy and acknowledging the difficulties my parents were facing, Mr. Cronkite sent one of the warmest letters my parents were to receive. 
A very fun note from a former local news anchor, Mike Ahern
Tom Brokaw's reply
One of our proudest responses, Walter Cronkite
                Although not a newsman, another person who had occupied the television screen my whole life was Art Linkletter.  He too wrote a long and moving letter in which he discussed the joy of his 73 year marriage to his wife, Lois, his children and grandchildren and the pain of losing their daughter.  Mr. Linkletter was a motivational speaker at the time, and it showed in his words of encouragement to my dad.  Like Walter Cronkite’s note, his is also one of my most cherished replies.
A very thoughtful response from Art Linkletter
                In the sports field, the people I contacted were limited because sports had not been as big a part of our lives as other forms of entertainment.  Dad enjoyed following the Indianapolis Colts, and Coach Dungy was one of the first to respond with an inscribed photo.  Also from the Colts roster, tight end Ben Utech wrote a very nice note as did center, Jeff Saturday.  They were both hand written letters and each player discussed his own family to add a personal touch.  Indiana basketball legend, Larry Bird, sent a very simple note of congratulations.  My mother was originally from the Owensboro area of Kentucky, as is the Waltrip racing family, so I wrote Darrell Waltrip who signed a photo to them. 
Indianapolis Colts Center, Jeff Saturday, showing his softer side
                In a category all his own, Survivor competitor and fellow Hoosier, Rupert Boneham sent them a nice letter and photo.  Likewise, a local author (one of my dad’s favorites) and Quaker pastor, Phillip Gulley, was also kind enough to send my father a letter.
Rupert adding his own special touch.  He also sent a nice letter.
                Finally, there was the response of Thomas and Skinner, Inc.  My parents met shortly after World War II in Indianapolis.  It just so happened that they were both employed at a local steel and magnet factory called Thomas and Skinner – Dad running the centerless grinder in the shop while Mom ran a punch press.  In fact, many in my mother’s family also worked there.  And although they officially met outside of work, I claim this to be the beginning of their relationship.  When I related this to the company, the president of the company wrote me back saying they wanted to issue a special certificate honoring my parents.  And so a plaque was created recognizing their service to the company and their 60 years together as a couple.  Again, I was touched that a company would go out of its way in the fashion that it did to celebrate a couple that no one working there today even knows.
The plaque created by Thomas & Skinner
                My sister, upon seeing my great success, also dove into a letter writing campaign, and her efforts returned some nice replies.  Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, whose husband was also battling dementia, wrote a warm reply.  The actor Karl Malden sat down on his 85th birthday to pen a note of encouragement to my mother.  Ernest Borgnine also sent an encouraging hand written note to my sister and an inscribed photo to my parents.  Sydney Poitier sent a lengthy letter discussing Mom’s great pies which Dianna had mentioned in her note to him. The beloved child actress, Shirley Temple even sent a rare reply in the form of a card wishing my folks a happy anniversary.  Former First Lady, Betty Ford, wrote a note as did George and Barbara Bush, although I’m sure their reply is secretarial as are most presidential replies.  Actors from the Waltons television show, Ralph Waite and Michael Learned, each answered her, as did Phyllis Diller, Betty White, Ken Berry, Jimmy Dean, James Arness, Jon Provost (Timmy of Lassie fame) and Jim Stafford.  There was also a signed anniversary card from Billy Graham. 
Karl Malden's letter to my mom written on his birthday
I was surprised when my sister got a reply from Sidney Poitier
Ernest Borgnine's note of encouragement to my sister, Dianna
                The stack of replies soon became a mountain and eventually I had to decide on how to best present it to my parents.  I finally decided on the idea of a large scrapbook, something I had never done.  I spent hours at the craft store looking for background paper for each of the pages, searching for decorative touches and relative quotes.  I scoured the Internet for yet additional quotes to augment the theme of some pages.  Then I had to go through all the family photos and scan and copy dozens upon dozens of old photographs, print them out, cut them, organize them and affix them to the appropriate pages.  Many nights I was up until midnight or later trying to organize all of this, and I suspect I put in 100 hours all told.  What I finally produced was a book telling the story of their lives and including all the replies.  As one looks through the book, the left hand page is a collection of photos outlining various points in the timeline of their lives.  It begins with my father’s early years, goes next to my mother’s life, then on to their dating, their marriage, their children (each in turn,) their homes, their extended families, their friends, their recreation, family meals, prior anniversaries, and grandchildren before eventually concluding with their current life.  I included a letter I had received years earlier from my Dad’s late sister describing their wedding at her house.  I also included snippets from a brief memoir my Dad had written about his life.  On the right hand pages I mounted the photos and letters we had received.  Whenever there was only a letter, I found photos of the person on line to print and include with the letter so Mom would know (hopefully) from whom it came.  In the end, I had a book 12 inches by 13 inches and 3.5 inches thick. 
The finished product
Some vacation pictures opposite the letter by Indianapolis Mayor Ballard
My Aunt Nellie's letter about my parents' wedding opposite the letter from former Mayor Bill Hudnut
Pictures of my brother (child 2) opposite Jane Pauley's letter
                On the day of their anniversary, the family gathered at my house and we presented them with their book.  They sat together and paged through it with Dad turning the pages and pointing out the various people.  Mom sat and carefully studied the pages, but she kept her usual unexpressive look.  I was not sure if she knew what she was looking at, but when I quizzed her about a couple of the old photos, she could tell me who they were.  Then something happened that made it all worthwhile for me.  Dad was having trouble reading a name on one of the letters when my mother looked over and read it to him.  We had all thought that Mom had lost her ability to read, and to see her do it one more time nearly brought me to tears.  For days afterwards, Dad would pull out the book and together they would sit, look at it and try to reminisce together.  My goal had been met.  I gave Dad something that made the day a little happier, and I sparked in Mom some lost memories.  But it would never have happened had not dozens of celebrities taken the time to jot down a few thoughtful words for a couple they would never know, but whose lives they had long impacted.  I thank them one hundred times over.  More importantly, I thank my parents for creating the perfect model of what a marriage should be. 
Mom and Dad looking at the book with family gathered around
And that is why today I say, "Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!"
* click on any photo for a larger view


  1. Well, a lot of the names meant nothing to me over here in the UK, but such a lovely idea. I have written to 'celebrities' before now, getting back signed letters and so forth, usually in connection with the work I did at the hospice, fund-raising amongst other things. Plus well known authors too, who have responded with letters and cards which I have pasted inside the front cover of the particular novel which I wrote to them about. They may add value to the book, not really bothered about that since I won't be around when the books are sold!
    But the name Mike Ahern struck a bell, as we also have someone of that name over in the UK working as a newsman, who began life as a pirate radioship DJ back in the 60s.
    Great read as usual Scott.

  2. Lovely family .. very motivational touch ........!!

    lapel pins

    1. Thank you very much, Serena. I think I have a lovely family, as well.