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Letters as art

July 26, 2008
By Howard Riley,

What a shame that hardly anyone writes letters nowadays. Too busy with e-mails, texting, cell phones and telephones (yes, we still use the "land line" occasionally).

So when we run across letters written in the 1920s and '30s, it makes us realize how much we miss those people who "fell into a word mill," as my colleague Bill McLaughlin used to say.

Now, Lora Brown has sent me an envelope of treasures from Saranac Lake in those early years containing a number of letters written to (or for) Ruth McClellan. Ruth was a teacher in our school system for many years, and despite the attention of a number of suitors, she apparently remained singleso these personal letters, using only excerpts, are quoted here as a tribute to her.

Article Photos

Ruth McClellan modeled for a photographer from New York that used her picture in ads in the New York Times promoting the Adirondacks. This is a post card showing Ruth on an unidentified lakeside dock. Other post cards show her golfing.
(Photo provided)

A note from the bank

Here is a bank president writing on behalf of a young teacher going off to summer school. The logo for the Adirondack National Bank and Trust Company read, "Big and Strong & Friendly." John R. Freer was president, William C. Leonard was VP, George H. LaPan was a cashier. Assistant cashiers were Elizabeth Betters and Elwood Ober. The letter was dated July 1, 1933:

Oswego Summer School,

Oswego, N.Y.


"The bearer of this letter, Miss Ruth McClellan, is one of our old friends and customers and expects to attend your school for the next six weeks. She is absolutely honest and reliable in every way and may wish to get a few of her checks cashed to pay her expenses. We wish you would take care of her and see that the checks are cashed and we will see that they are paid. We know she will not impose on any courtesy shown her and we recommend her very highly to you."

Mr. Freer's signature is in ink, the letter is typed and the closing reads, "Yours very truly."

Letters of affection

This letter was written to Ruth in September 1933 from a teacher in the Islip school system, named Dick, who was setting up a school exhibit in Riverhead at the 81st annual Suffolk County Fair.

Apparently, it was not proper etiquette back then to type personal letters.

"The fates seem to consistently decree that longhand methods shall, at least temporarily, give way to the mechanicians of the typewriter. Forgive me dear; I rest on the defense that my determination not to let another day go by without communicating with you has swept aside all thought of etiquettedespite what typewriter advertising men would have us believe about the suitability of their contraptions for social correspondence.

"We'd have supper at the Henry Perkins Hotel, and then take in a show, and then return to Islip via the beautiful Montauk highway, which at this time of year, with the moon bathing the dunes in silvery splendor renders the scene almost as precious as the grounds of the Pleasant Point Club on a warm summer's night with a beautiful and fascinating girl by one's side."

Whewmaybe that is a run-on sentence, but it sure is a beauty!

A letter from Doug

No date on this letter to Ruth, and no indication of where Doug lives or his profession, but it sounds like he got himself in a little jam the last time he saw Ruth.

"Forgive me please, Ruth, for my actions at S.L.U. last June. I really felt terrible about it, just know that it was not me at all. I haven't been myself for so long that I'm a stranger to myself. Life is such a peculiar problem; I haven't been able to figure it out.

"You were such a dear to write me such a lovely letter; it was adorable, as you used to say. I didn't deserve it, Ruth, but somehow I knew you would write to me.

"It's almost impossible to keep out sentiment in this note, as you have noticed; just can't help showing that I still care even though I haven't the right."

Jack says it all

But then in a letter to Ruth, Jack gets right to the point and closes with "I love you" after a few paragraphs that go like this:

"Your eyes are nice to look into. Sometimes they talk, other times they shine like the stars at night. You're the type of girl who grows on people, you're broadminded, you have a sense of fair play, you're forever trying to help someone, you wear your clothes as they should be worn, your voice is very pleasant to me, I like your hair" and this goes on for three or four hand-written pages and closes with "Well, there me be hundreds of more reasons (why I love you), but the above are the most important."

More about Ruth

There are more letters from other suitors, but we will move on to Saranac Lake High School history. It seems that Ruth graduated from SLHS in 1924 because her "Preliminary Certificate," promoting her from elementary school to high school, was dated June 14, 1920 and signed by Margaret M. Seymour, principal. She taught in the special education department.

(Continued next week, including a picture of the SLHS Class of 1924.)



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