Monday, January 15, 2007

Their Stories Live On Through Our Writing

When I opened my morning paper on Saturday, I was saddened to see on the front page that Kansas City’s Secret Santa had died. Secret Santa, who started his life financially poor, later went around our city and then others, handing out $100 bills to people he thought could use some extra cash during the holidays.
For years, the general public didn’t know his identity. Donna McGuire, a fellow journalist who is with The Kansas City Star, started writing about him in 1995. She, nor any of the other journalists who knew this man’s identity ever revealed it until he gave them permission this past Christmas.
Donna recently wrote a book about Secret Santa, or Larry Stewart. By this past Christmas, we all knew that the man the area admired probably wouldn’t live to give away money next year. Most of us didn’t know him personally as Donna did, but she brought him to life for those of us who did not. For years, we didn’t need to know his real name to be touched by his generosity towards others, and that was because of stories Donna and then others wrote about him.
On Saturday, I read Larry’s story one last time and then Donna’s tribute to him. When I got to the obituary section of the paper, I then found a tribute to a person whom I did a story on a couple of years ago (our paper writes tributes on one “average” citizen per day who has recently passed).
I looked at the photo and immediately recognized her as Helen Hummel, a 91-year-old woman who spent 70 years of her life devoted to her churches and through her organ music, the hymns congregations sang each Sunday. I had written a feature on her two years before.
I only spent an afternoon with Helen, interviewing her, the pastor of her church and a couple of her friends, but I immediately liked her. Helen told me about her special gold slippers she kept under the organ at her church that she only put on when she played. The petite woman also told me about her huge 1957 Chevy she sat on phone books to drive. And she told me about her favorite outings with her friends – to the Olive Garden restaurant.
Helen touched a lot of people in her life, including me. And that’s one great thing about writing. We writers get to see and do things most people do not. We then have the amazing opportunity to bring those events to life for others.
One of the most unforgettable hands-on interviews I ever did was donning a paper hospital gown, hat and booties to watch a fertility doctor create the beginnings of life in a petri dish.
But there have been so many other memorable people profiles. How could I ever forget Bill Wedekind, the blind double amputee Vietnam veteran who became a potter? I keep his photo above my desk to remind myself if he can get through the hardships of life, any of us can. There was the man who volunteered for the Red Cross for 50 years. He helped people through disaster such as the great flood of 1951 here in Kansas City to giving food to rescue workers at the World Trade Center. Musicians, teachers, mentors…I may not remember all of their names, but I remember their stories.
And I remember Helen Hummel, a humble little woman who sat at a large organ every Sunday and played. She touched everyone she met in big ways. I was glad I was able to bring her story to life before she passed.
When I get complacent or regard any of the profiles I’m writing as “average,” Helen, Larry and Bill’s stories can remind me that through writing, we make sure their lives are not regarded as such.
And that’s one of the great things about being a writer.


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