Santa letter 50 years ago changed lives

Fifty years ago, the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal published my letter to Santa Claus, shaping my adult life.

When my second-grade teacher, Judy Williamson Mervine, assigned a letter to Santa Claus, I wrote, “Dear Santa Claus, Please stop the war in Vietnam and give all of my toys to the people there so they will have a good Christmas and if I don’t get any toys I won’t care because Christmas is when the baby Jesus was born in the manger and we have gifts to celebrate Christmas. Kimberly Ann Stover.”

Surprised that my letter asked for something beyond toys, Mrs. Mervine decided to contact the Journal.

The Journal reporter asked me what war was, and I said it was fighting with guns. She asked me if I really believed in Santa Claus, and I said yes, but admitted, “Santa might not get there because his reindeer would get tired.” She also asked if Santa had any toys left over, what present would I want. I said a doll.

The front page of the Dec. 22, 1966, Journal featured the story.

Close to where my family lived, Mrs. Anita Ripley read the article and sent it to her son, Private First Class Jim Ripley, who was stationed near Saigon working as a heavy vehicle driver in Company B of the 69th Engineering Battalion of the U.S. Army.

Then Jim decided to make sure that I got that doll.

In January, a package arrived from Vietnam. Mom helped me open the wrapping to find a tall, beautiful Vietnamese doll and a letter: “Dear Kimberly Ann, You don’t know me but I know of you from a clipping my parents sent to me. I want to thank you for the wish you asked Santa Claus for. I am in Vietnam and I too would like ‘Santa Claus’ to stop the war over here so I could be home with my family….”

On Jan. 12, 1967, the Journal did a front-page follow-up story including a picture of me with my new doll.

The most amazing experience that ever happened to me was learning the power of words; at 7 years old, I had touched someone half a world away. It is no coincidence that I majored in creative writing, have two master’s degrees and taught English at Columbus North High School for 32 years.

It also marked the beginning of my life-long friendships with Jim Ripley and his family and Judy Mervine. We have corresponded ever since, especially at Christmastime.

I have also had memorable get-togethers with Jim and his family: in Akron after Jim returned from Vietnam; in Hagerstown, Maryland, where we had moved in 1967; and in 1981, when I was graduating from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. When Jim and his wife Linda’s oldest daughter, Sally, got married in 1992, I attended her wedding.

In Vietnam, Jim was ultimately transferred to the Mekong Delta as a combat engineer to build base camps for the troops. The first step was clearing the forest using Agent Orange, the infamous defoliant now linked to critical health problems. For Jim, these issues have included a loss of skin pigmentation on his face, hands, arms and legs, and an ischemic heart condition.

Jim was diagnosed with mild dementia in 2009, but his doctors cannot definitively determine whether Agent Orange is the cause. Now considerably more debilitated, Jim recognizes only his wife Linda. This past July when I visited their home, Jim didn’t call me by name, but he knew me and was very glad to see me, as I was him.

That afternoon, when Linda, Jim and I visited the Ohio Veterans’ Memorial Park in Clinton, Ohio, Jim saw a displayed Army truck and recalled coming under fire while driving a fuel truck in a convoy. Though honorably discharged in 1967, Jim’s Vietnam experiences still haunt him with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This September, Jim’s family honored him with a commemorative tile on the Family of Heroes Memorial Hall at the Ohio Veterans’ Memorial Park. Although a very emotional day for Jim, he found great joy in watching Jimmy, his son, place his tile on the wall.

This Christmas, 50 years from our improbable but auspicious meeting I, too, honor Jim.

Our shared wish for an end to armed conflict still resonates, and my Vietnamese doll still stands on my desk, a testament to a young soldier’s big heart and a young girl’s belief in Santa Claus and in goodness itself.

Kim Stover, a Columbus resident, is a retired Columbus North High School English teacher. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.