A Timeless Gesture

Paul Nolan

I’ve got books of letters written by Georgia O’Keefe, Jack Kerouac, Richard Nixon and a book of letters exchanged between Jean Paul Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir. Many of Hunter S. Thompson’s most entertaining rants came in his letters.

I like reading other people’s letters for a number of reasons. First, they provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of fascinating personalities. To be sure, Kerouac and Steinbeck knew they were leaving something for future generations to mull over, but even those great writers never thought people would be reading personal letters they wrote some 70 years after they were penned.

I also like them because letter writers frequently let down their guard, in part because they are writing to a close friend or a spouse and feel comfortable baring their soul. Sentiments shared in the letters of a writer, politician or other public figure often provide great insight into their more notable writings of the time or decisions they made.

Naturally, I was intrigued by a book review I read in The Wall Street Journal about a collection of letters from Bud Wilkinson, who coached the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team in the early 1960s, to his son Jay, who was attending Duke University and playing football there. Jay Wilkinson, who is now a retired businessman and a motivational speaker, intersperses his dad’s letters with thoughts of his own on what he learned from his dad’s words. You can read more about the book on page 22 in this issue.

It was interesting that the younger Wilkinson could gleam life lessons from otherwise mundane notes from his dad about winter vacations or business trips to Washington, D.C., and how good the hotel restaurant’s breakfasts were. It occurs to me that there is a valuable lesson in that for managers and C-level executives.

In this era of e-mails, tweets and Facebook updates, handwritten notes are as rare as hen’s teeth. But  if some simple yet earnest thoughts from a mentor put down on paper can possibly mean so much, why wouldn’t managers take the time to write something out and slip it to a subordinate who has reached an important goal or just turned in an excellent week of work?

It’s unlikely that you’d find those letters reprinted in a collection of notes in a used bookstore. But I wouldn’t put it past a proud employee to stuff it in a shoebox at home and get the same enjoyment from it all over again 15 years down the road.

Paul Nolan, Editor