‘Vir­ginia’ viewed from other side of the desk

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS -

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.

Arnold Gar­cia

Frank Church, ed­i­to­rial writer for The New York Sun.

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