The Lost Art of Letter Writing, Part 3

The Lost Art of Letter Writing, Part 3

The Lost Art of Letter Writing (Part 3)

The year was 1957. Like the hit song by The Statler Brothers, my dad was graduating from high school and ready to conquer the world.[1] But there was a problem. My granddad was a steelworker who made ends meet, but he didn’t have enough money to put my dad through college. Thankfully, a wealthy relative stepped up and agreed to pay his tuition. When fall rolled around, my dad headed from his home in Weirton to Salem College, a small, independent school in northcentral West Virginia.

For the next four years, his home and his friends would be nearly two hours away. But he left something even more important behind—his longtime sweetheart who, in due time, would become my mom.

I’ve never really thought of my dad as a letter writer. But during those college years he and my mom wrote regularly. To be honest, it was a bit of a shock to see the sheer volume of letters he produced in so short a time. But as I read them, I could see how important it was for my dad to keep connected with familiar things and familiar people. More than that, I could see just how much he cared for my mom.    

Occasionally, they could get together for a short visit.  But most of the time my dad was alone. “This place just doesn’t seem right because you’re not here,” he wrote. He put a picture of my mom on his dresser. “I can sit and look at your picture all night, but that doesn’t satisfy. I would rather have you in my arms.” He certainly wasn’t afraid to share how he felt: “I love you just a little bit more every time I see you.”

I especially enjoyed the early letters. Like a time machine, they let me see what a college freshman’s life was like. Freshmen had to follow a ridiculous set of rules that were enforced by “tribunals” of upperclassmen. If asked, freshmen were expected to know how many days were left in the school year, the words of the school’s fight song, etc. They also had to wear beanies any time they were on campus. Any violation of these rules would get you hauled before a tribunal. “About 50 freshmen were called to tribunal court today,” my dad reported in one of his letters, “but I’ve been lucky—so far.”

My dad learned quickly that the best way to protect yourself from bullies on campus was to befriend someone who was even bigger. “I got me a good buddy now,” he told my mom. “He played football for West Virginia University in the Sugar Bowl last year. He stands 6 ft 5 in and weighs 245, so I don’t think I’ll have anybody try to shove me around!”

Not surprisingly, college was a busy time. The work was challenging and time-consuming. “I was going to write you last night,” he confessed in one letter, “but I got here and I had to do an English theme.” The easy days of high school were over. “This year I have work to do every night and I can’t get used to it.” At one point he took a typing class and—like me—found himself struggling a bit. The professor was already giving time tests, he complained, “and I don’t even know all the keys yet.” Ah, yes, a kindred soul!

Even as a young man, my dad dreamed of having a family of his own. I had no idea! One day he saw a married couple walking through campus with their children. “I couldn’t help but think of you, honey,” he confessed.

Within a couple of years his dreams came true. My parents got married the summer before my dad’s senior year. I was born shortly after that. I found a letter that my dad wrote during the pregnancy. It was very eye opening for me. I always considered my dad to be a self-confident man. But as he wrote to my mom, he shared the mixed emotions he was feeling. He was happy and excited at the prospect of having a baby and starting a family, but he worried about the future:

“It really makes me proud to think I’m going to be a father and I don’t think I could have picked a better mother. I just hope after I get out of school, whatever I get into will be good enough and pay enough that we won’t have to worry about depriving our baby of any of the good things in life.”

Despite his misgivings, I’m here to tell you that my dad’s venture into fatherhood was an unqualified success. My dad was an avid storyteller, and through the years he enjoyed telling us what it was like growing up and going to school. But his stories were no substitute for the letters he left behind. Here, in his own words, he felt free to share his innermost thoughts—his fears, his dreams, his struggles. He was open, honest, and vulnerable with the woman he loved. I thought I knew my dad. After reading his letters, I came to realize I only knew a part of his story. I still don’t know everything, but I’m happy he was willing to share this chapter. Believe me, I’ll cherish it!

*Image courtesy of Unsplash/Pixabay

[1] For those too young to remember, the chorus from “The Class of ‘57” goes like this:

The class of '57 had its dreams
But living life day to day is never like it seems
Things get complicated when you get past eighteen
But the class of '57 had its dreams

Today's blog: As part of a series, Jay Stoneking delves into part three by telling how writing letters allowed his dad to keep in touch with his mom during their college years.