____________________It was 1935 and we were a group of friends enjoying an after-dinner conversation. Because Thanksgiving was just around the corner and prosperity wasn't, we fell to talking about what we had to be thankful for.
"Well I for one am grateful to Mrs. Wendt, an old school teacher, who 30 years ago in a little West Virginia town went out of her way to introduce me to the works of the poet, Tennyson."
Then I launched into a colorful description of Mrs. Wendt, a lovely little old lady who had been my high school teacher and who had made a deep impression on my life.
"And does this Mrs. Wendt know that she made that contribution to your life?" one of my friends asked me.
"I'm afraid she doesn't. I have been careless and have never, in all these years, told her either face-to-face or by letter."
"Then why don't you write her? It would make her happy if she is still living, and it might make you happier, too. The thing that most of us ought to do is to learn to develop the attitude of gratitude."
That friend's challenge made me see that I had received something very precious and hadn't bothered to say thanks. That very evening, I tried to atone. On the chance that Mrs. Wendt, might still be living, I sat down and wrote her what I call a "Thanksgiving letter."
In the letter I reminded her that it was she who had introduced my young mind to the works of Tennyson and Browning and others and that she had made a major difference in my life.
It took a couple of weeks for Mrs. Wendt's letter to reach her after being forwarded from town to town. Finally it reached her, and this is the handwritten note I had in return. It began:
"My Dear Willie," (The introduction itself was quite enough to warm my heart. Here I was, a man of 50, fat and bald, and to be addressed as "Willie.")
"I remember well your enthusiasm for Tennyson and the Idylls of the Kings when I read them to you for you were so beautifully responsive. My reward for telling you about Tennyson did not have to wait until your belated note of thanks came to me in my old age. I received my best reward your eager response to the lyrical beauty and the idealism of Tennyson."
"But in spite of the fact that I got much of my reward at that time, I want you to know what your note meant to me. I am now an old lady in my 80's, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and seemingly like the last leaf of fall left behind."
"You will be interested to know, Willie, that I taught school for 50 years and, in all that time, yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered my lonely old heart as nothing has cheered me in many years."
I wept over that simple, sincere note from my teacher of long ago. I read it to a dozen friends. One of them said, "I believe I'm going to write Miss Mary Scott a letter. She did something similar to that for my boyhood."
That first Thanksgiving letter was so successful and satisfying that I made a list of people who had contributed something definite and lasting to my life and decided to write at least one "Thanksgiving letter" every month.
For 10 years, I have kept up this exciting game of writing Thanksgiving month letters. I have a special file for answers, and now I have more than 500 of the most beautiful letters anyone has ever received.
A Thanksgiving letter isn't much. Only a few lines and a stamp to mail it. But the rewards are so great that only eternity can estimate them.
Thanks to the challenge of a friend, I have learned a little, at least, about gratitude.
- Written by William L."Big Bill" Stidger (1885-1949) who was one of the preachers interviewed by Sinclair Lewis when he wrote his novel "Elmer Gantry." Big Bill Stidger was the pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City who wrote poems such as "I Saw God Wash the World," a 1918 book about World War I veterans "Soldier Silhouettes."