A WAY WITH WORDS

Four serious letter writers talk about their relationships with pen and paper - by Julie Ryan

Modern man’s attachment to modern machines means that handy devices like the telephone and fax are redefining our interpersonal exchanges. Messages are convenient, instantaneous and disposable. Words are being tossed out with the trash. A few people, however, are keeping the lively art of letter writing alive. To them, letters are memories that will someday tumble from an old trunk to revive lost moments and keep the past intact.



is a merchant of ready-made messages. Nevertheless, he still writes his own. ■ His store, Ken Knight in the Quadrangle, carries more than a hundred styles of cards and gifts. ■ “Most of my personal correspondence is ’thank you, congrats, good luck,” he says. Since he works seven days a week, he doesn’t have time for long, meditative letters, but the personal element is not lost. ■ “It’s hard for me to say, in this business, but I like to compose my own words on a blank card.” Specifically, “flat, thick 4×6 blank cards. Crane’s ecru, with liquid ink, not ball point.” ■ “I try to stretch customers’ imaginations, that they can take a blank card and write ’thank-you’ on it themselves.” He smiles. “More people are doing it. But most of them say, ’I don’t want to say that much. I just want to sign my name.’ People have a hard time expressing themselves.”

DEANE DIX

has a social circle of hundreds of people in eight countries. ■ The career pilot has been a serious letter writer since family reunion thank-yous were assigned him as a way to correct his poor writing skills. ■ In 1976, a chance meeting with a Scandinavian airline pilot gave Dixon’s penchant for making friends a global scope. Lennart Andersson’s sons wanted to visit Texas so Andersson and Dixon swapped kids for the summer. The next year, friends of the Andersson children wanted to trade visits. They wrote Dixon. he wrote the parents and interviewed them on flight layovers, and an informal summer exchange program that would last 20 years was born. ■ “I’d say 200 or 300 kids came over, in the course of the thing,” says Dixon. Widowed at an early age, he devoted his free time to greasing the wheels for young visitors, finding them host families and summer jobs. “Ninety-five percent of the kids still write me, some after 20 years,” he says. ■ “Letters have been my source for a very wide variety of friends, adventures, learning. People miss opportunities. . .because they won’t risk being vulnerable, which [they can be in] letters.”



JANE ALBRITTON

was a pretty kindergarten teacher living in Hawaii in 1936 when she met a young geologist from Texas during his college graduation fishing trip to the islands. They married on the strength of two meetings-and a seven-year correspondence. ■ “It was like being a Japanese picture bride,” laughs Mrs. Albritton. “Claude was quite a letter writer.” ■ The young man with the way with words went on to write books on geology. He taught, and every chance they got, the family, including their three children, traveled. ■ Today, Mrs. Albritton’s connection to her late husband lives in his letters. And connections with old friends and new thrive through hers. Correspondents include one of his ex-students, now U.S. ambassador to Austria; another former student, who is an archaeologist in Poland; a French count and countess she met on a trip to India; and a German ice-cream heir. ■ “If I don’t let them know what I’m doing, I’m not their friend,” she says. History also lives in the family’s correspondence: letters across the Pacific during World War II; letters from daughter Jane on a 1960s Peace Corps stint in India. ■ “Letters are important to my family,” says the younger Jane. “The ethos is ’letters are powerful’ because of that seven-year correspondence we grew up knowing about, between Mother and Dad.’1



JAMES MARDIS

is research director for KLIF talk radio, keeping an ear to the community drumbeat. ■ He’s also a poet birthed in the rowdy word games of kids in his neighborhood near the Dallas Zoo in the trusting, open-door ’60s. “We all knew, and still know. . .we helped make each other who we are,” he says. The boys he played with still stay in touch by mail. ■ These days Mar-dis also uses the mail to reunite Louisiana and Texas kin lost to each other since a family rift more than 75 years ago. The light-skinned Mardises had moved from Alabama to Louisiana, passed as white and had become prosperous merchants. Then a son defied the family edict. “He married the darkest-skinned woman he could find,” says Mardis, and so he was disowned. Two kinfolk corresponded in secret; otherwise, contact was lost. ■ In 1990 their lost letters were found in an old trunk. Mardis, researching family genealogy after the death of his father, learned of the letters and of his unknown kin. ■ ”They [the family] are spread all over. Reaching them by letter works better than by phone. There’s time to explain. They can refer to it over and over and respond when they’re ready.”

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