‘Virginia’ viewed from other side of the desk
We were seriously considering giving the “Yes, Virginia” reprise a break this year, but the story about the teacher cited in the editorial above was an invitation to share that piece of American literature with you once again.
While little Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter and the thoughtful, poetic reply are famous, the fellow who wrote the response often gets lost in the shuffle. His name was Frank Church. Frank Pharcellus Church if you want to get fancy about it. Church had worked a variety of assignments before becoming an editorial writer, including covering the Civil War for The New York Times. Like a lot of newspaper people of the era (and even today) he had a reputation for being a kind of a grump.
Legend has it that Sun editor Edward P. Mitchell assigned Church to reply to the little girl’s letter as kind of an inside joke. I know you’ll find the notion of an editor jacking a writer around somewhat of a stretch, but I’m told it used to happen way back when.
Mitigating the newsroom legend is Mitchell’s later assessment of Church’s writing as “infused with well-bred humor, sometimes gentle, sometimes sly, occasionally even mordant, but with a bite that never deposited venom. It was employed on a wide range of subjects.”
The point is Church’s reply to the youngster’s letter tells us a lot about the newspaper’s relationship with its readers and is still instructive about what makes an editorial.
If Church had a reaction to the assignment, he didn’t document it. He wrote quickly and presumably moved on to the next assignment. The Virginia editorial ran on Sept. 21, 1897, the third of three editorials in the stack.
The over-the-top writing indicates a passive-aggressive reaction to an assignment a writer finds disagreeable. Then again, florid prose was the style in Church’s day.
The editorial was not republished until 1902 and then only reluctantly. In republishing the piece, the The Sun noted: “Since its original publication, The Sun has refrained from reprinting the article on Santa Claus which appeared several years ago, but this year requests for its reproduction have been so numerous that we yield.”
Yield, huh? Then there was this little parting shot: “Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”
Church’s authorship was finally disclosed in 1906 — in his obituary. Even that might have made him uncomfortable, because he relished the anonymity of editorial writing.
As for The Sun, it finally quit resisting the piece’s popularity and went with it. People liked it, but it took The Sun’s editors awhile to latch onto that.
American University’s William Campbell wrote a study of the Virginia letter and the lessons its holds for us today. In it, he quotes Eric Newton, then of the Freedom Forum’s Newseum. “Newspapers today need Church’s poetry on their editorial pages,” Newton wrote in 1997, the letter’s centennial. Echoed Geo Beach, writing in Editor & Publisher that same year: “It was brave writing. Love, hope, belief — all have a place on the editorial page.”
We’ll try to remember that when we sit down to opine.
By the way, The Sun folded in 1949. The paper’s name was later revived and a New York Sun is still in publication. Virginia grew up and dedicated her life to teaching. She died in 1971. In 2005, plans were announced to convert her New York City childhood home into a school. Seems fitting enough.
In an interview published in the Sun in 2004, Virginia’s grandson quoted her as saying: “All I did was ask the question ... Mr. Church’s editorial was so beautiful ... It was Mr. Church who did something wonderful.” Yes, Virginia, he did. Rest easy, Mr. Church, and thank you.
Merry Christmas everybody. Contact Arnold Garcia at 4453667.