Thank You, Mr. U: A Thanksgiving Idea

[Note: This Words & Ways commentary was first shared with the participants of Pathways Faith Community, where a pdf copy to read and print can be found in the Archives.]

Here’s a different way to approach the Thanksgiving holiday, where the remembrance of gratitude might even exceed the universal importance off expressing our thanks to another human being. 

The news from Farmington, Maine last year was all about a first-class postcard delivered to Ruth McGary, an 83-year old retired public health worker, now living in Manchester.  The postmark on the card with a 1-cent postage stamp showed it was mailed in 1946.

Back then, Ruth was a student at the University of Maine, and some folks named Charlie and Gert had sent her the note. Charlie was the manager of a little department store in Augusta, where Ruth had worked the summer to pay for her first semester’s tuition.  She’d also played trombone in their amateur swing band, performing at local social halls.  Apparently, she’d written Charlie and Gert, telling them all about her new college adventures.  In return, they’d sent her the thank you postcard.

Dear Ruth,

Thank you for your card and for remembering us. Glad to hear you’re playing again and hope the swing band gets together – let us hear about it. Hope the homework won’t interfere. Glad to hear the food is good. Keep well and regards to your folks.

Sincerely, Gert & Charlie

How the postcard remained lost all these years at the local post office was a mystery. But when the University’s mailroom clerk eventually received the mail piece addressed to a dormitory that no longer exists she set about tracking down the intended recipient through the alumnae office.

By the time the postcard was finally hand-delivered, Ruth said she couldn’t even recall sending the original letter.  Now a senior citizen herself, she figures it’s a too late to send Charlie and Gert a reply.  Her only regret?  The senders never knew she’d finally received their thank you note.

It got me thinking about people in my life for whom a thank you note — however belated — would be a fine thing to do this time of year.  So, after reading the little story about Ruth, Charlie and Gert, I got an early start.

I thought of teachers who’d made an impression on me, at a time in my young life when it never occurred to me to express any appreciation to those who usually just piled on the homework assignments and demanded excellence. I can still easily remember some profs like Arthur Lessing, Tom Trotter, Jack Coogan, John Cobb and Hans Dieter-Betz.  And in high school, there was Robert Usellis.

When I was in boarding school, it was long enough ago we were still required to wear jacket and tie to class, and teachers were addressed as Mr. So-and-so.  In my junior year I took an American history course with Mr. Usellis.

When it came time for the midterm essay exam, the question was all about early 20th century immigration policies, their effects on our country’s progress and the national character.  How totally useless and irrelevant could you get, I thought?  I’d studied little and knew even less.  My essay consisted of one short paragraph containing about three sentences that said next to nothing

The next day a fuming Mr. U. stormed into the classroom, hurling the stack of graded exams across the floor, and yelling at the top of his lungs, “What a bunch of crap!”

Then he randomly picked out just one of those little blue exam books and read aloud in its entirety my own very brief answer to the essay question.  He hardly needed to disclose the author’s name.  Head down, I sank as low in my desk as possible.  My face felt flushed.

“Buckle down!” he bellowed.  Then class continued, but the day’s lesson was complete.  I buckled down, and by the time I submitted my final term paper weeks later, my chosen topic was all about the history of immigration reform in America.

At the end of the semester I was summoned to Mr. U’s dormitory apartment one evening after supper. I tapped on his door and was ushered in.  Standing there, facing him man to man, he shoved my exam book forward into my shaking hands.  On the cover I immediately saw the circled “A-“ and realized I would pass the course.

He then went on a bit, muttering a few more words of advice about more books and periodicals on the subject, which he thought I might find interesting.  To be honest, I’ve never been much of a history buff, or looking back over the well-worn paths of others.  But history wasn’t the lesson to be learned.

Only afterward did I look again and read the note Mr. Usellis had written beneath the grade.  “Congratulations, John.  You are like the prodigal, and I rejoice over your return.”

Over the years, I’ve periodically recalled that incident that happened so long ago.  More than once, I’ve wondered what ever happened to Mr. U.  Someday I really should get around to expressing my appreciation to him for what he did, I’ve thought.  As I’ve grown older myself, I’ve come to realize how much it’s meant when I’ve received similar gestures from a handful of folks I’ve helped in some small and extraordinary way.

So, the post card story of Ruth, Charlie and Gert got me thinking again about Mr. U, and the belated thank-you I still wanted to send him. I contacted my old school’s alumnae office, inquiring if they had any information on a former instructor from 1965.  Nothing.

On my own I then discovered there was someone by the name of Robert Usellis who’d served as the first headmaster of a private school on the other side of the country, that started up in the mid-sixties.  It was about the time my former history teacher had left Cranbrook.  As it turns out, the Athenian School is only a few miles from where I’ve lived the last 30 years of my life!  But at this point they have no record of their Mr. U’s whereabouts either.

I searched title records of property owners in the local Bay Area counties, to see if I could find anyone with that name, to no avail. At this point, the trail has gone cold.  Given the number of years that have elapsed, I have no idea if Mr. U. is “grass or sod,” as my grandmother liked to say.  Though I remember him as a younger teacher in my adolescence, he may well no longer reside at a deliverable address.

Nonetheless, I’ve decided my efforts have not been for naught, and that it doesn’t matter. In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday this year, I’ve gone ahead and written Mr. U. my belated letter.

Dear Mr. Usellis,

Thank you for your American history class from 1965.  More importantly, thank you for your fury and disappointment; for your hope and high expectations; but mostly, thank you for your eager readiness to rejoice and welcome a prodigal’s return.  It has served me well, and I am grateful for the brief time you were a part of a young man’s journey; and subsequently in my lengthening of days. 

Gratefully, and with my best wishes, etc.

I’ve dropped my note to Mr. U. in the mailbox, using the following address: “Address Unknown.”  I figure it has nearly as good a chance getting delivered as Charlie and Gert’s postcard.

The season perennially reminds us, it’s better to give than receive.  As meaningful as it is to receive an expression of appreciation, it’s even more important and meaningful to offer it. However belated it may be, or whether it ever reaches its intended recipient, it can never be a misbegotten gesture.


2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

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