When Abraham Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, the contents of his pockets at Ford's Theatre included clippings of nine articles, many of which spoke of him favorably. Little wonder that a man who was portrayed in brutal editorial cartoons as an ape hung onto good words spoken of him.
I guess it's not odd, then, that I've kept in my desk a few notes of a sweeter nature. Like Lincoln, I kept them because they touched me.
I believe many of us ask ourselves, "Did I really make a difference in my job?" We want to know if what we did amounted to any good, whether we're builders, secretaries, clerks, teachers or factory workers. "Did my efforts improve anyone's life?" We just never know but one card gives me a notion that the answer may be "yes." Anyone who's watched "It's A Wonderful Life" -- perhaps my favorite Christmas movie of all time -- knows that George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has an epiphany when he sees that his life amounted to much good as he's treated to a view of Bedford Falls without his presence and influence.
The newspaperman -- or anyone else who works for that matter -- rarely hears how his work impacts others. (We simply don't bother to tell others that when we appreciate them.) But I got a glimpse of my impact when I read a simple card bearing gold-foiled lettering "Thanks so much." It was signed by a woman who wrote: "I would like to thank you for bringing the gospel of Pastor Rob Hidahl to my home via the Courier. It has led to my baptism as a Christian and becoming a member of Ceres Christian Church. Eternally grateful, Freida."
Someone's eternal destiny certainly rates as highly significant in my book!
Another letter that touched me was sent in 1999 by Tonya Reyes of a children's group at Valley View Church of the Nazarene. She conveyed that kids in her class aged 3-5 had prayed for me and noted "we appreciate your service to our community. It is people like you that make a positive impact in our children's future." Tonya's letters closed by saying: "Each of the children wrote their names and drew you a flower. May this card be of some encouragement to you if you ever feel as if you are making no impact at all and realize that you are. God bless you."
Last year a Wilma I know wrote me a sweet card thanking me for the feature story I wrote on her good friend, Tom Dimperio. She wrote, in part, "I so look forward to getting your Courier each week just to devour every word you write. I'm not an emotional person but you sure can bring out every emotion in me. You have made me a better person through having known you."
It was one of the nicest cards I've received.
I hung onto a handwritten letter which was addressed to Jeff and staff from the Gaede family. It read: "You put out the best paper in California!!! God bless you for your brilliant, straight talk editorials and objective reporting."
A resident on Shushan named Ray wrote a note a year ago that stated: "Thank you for a great paper which I've read for 30 plus years." He then went on to urge us to bring back "Sound Off!"
I don't have a letter but I had a conversation which suggested that I helped turn one life around. One gentleman who committed a crime -- which I wrote about -- decided to sue me for defamation of character after repeatedly and brazenly confronting me with the strong smell of alcohol on his breath. After two court appearances I stuck to my guns and he lost his case. Months later he came to see me, sober, to thank me for standing up to him, saying he respected me and that it helped turn his life around. I cannot say for sure that his recovery stuck but let's say I haven't seen him run afoul of the law in Ceres.
It goes the opposite way too. I saved three letters written me last year by Folsom Prison inmate Steven Schmidt who didn't take too kindly to an article I wrote about him questioning where he went wrong. One letter struck a threatening tone: "But the way you've got at me now makes me think real bad thoughts about you ... you know who I am."
After the death of my wife, Carlington Kuglin wrote me and said "may God bless you. Carry on your good works and then RETIRE!"
In some cases, some of my articles became celebrated achievements in the lives of subjects. I have been blessed to meet and hear the life stories of many great and humble people. One such as Betty Baker. She wrote a card explaining, "I've been overwhelmed by the favorable response from so many people. It's very humbling and deeply appreciated...So many have said you did a great job, and tastefully done."
That was well received because she offered praise at the time cluing me in that many read it. With 19,000 copies and zero feedback sometimes, an editor can be duped into thinking his work goes into a black hole.
After visiting with the amazing folks of the Ceres High class of 1954 at their reunion, and feeling the rich lives they have enjoyed, Bev Forbis wrote to tell me that she enjoyed my article very much.
In 1994 I received a letter from a Kerry Randazzo-Watson who wrote a supportive card, encouraging me to keep on keeping on with my political views. She wrote: "Don't let any of the idiots that write into "Sound Off!" discourage you. I appreciate finally being able to read a conservative paper columnist..."
She went on to assure me that Jerry Sheffield, a Ceres political candidate who was giving grief at the time was "an immature creep who threw tantrums every time things didn't go his way." She knew, she explained, because she worked with him.
To us, articles are paper and ink. To subjects, an article or photo is an event in life. The same holds true for the well-known. I kept a handwritten note from the late Maryellen Berryhill, wife of Clare Berryhill and mother of state legislators Tom and Bill Berryhill. I covered the Chamber luncheon where she had been named Agribusiness Woman of the Year. She thanked me for the piece saying "It was almost astonishing to see my picture on the front page as it was to be honored."
To receive commendations from your boss is worthy of keeping, too. I saved a May 6, 1996 letter from Darrel Phillips, publisher of the Courier at the time. If there was a Central Valley Journalism Hall of Fame, Mr. Phillips would certainly be an inductee. He wrote: "Congratulations on your special section on the Ceres Street Faire. The editorial, the ads and the cover were outstanding. That's one of the best special sections I've seen in a long time..."
I'm glad I saved the letter in light of the fact that Mr. Phillips tragically died less than a year later when he was swept away in a raging creek near Sutter Creek.
Letters from others more educated than I were always appreciated. Walt Hanline, then the CUSD superintendent, thanked me for a 2002 column "Our kids are in trouble." "This is not only extremely well written, but also has the ability to get to the core of any parent who reads it."
Letters from children also warmed my heart. I saved William Bailey's 2007 card thanking me for "acknowledging Ceres 4-H." He sent along a photo of him proudly displaying his reserve supreme champion market hog.
It's soon will be 2016, and few people actually send letters due to email. I'm sure there are memorable words buried in email files but none that stand out like this small stack of letters that I have in my drawer. They are a tangible reminder for me that we do make a difference in life when we pour our lives into our jobs.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org