Perhaps the most famous letter to the editor was one written by an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon who asked, "Is there a Santa Claus?"
In an equally famous editorial reply, the New York Sun's Francis Pharcellus Church wrote: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Today, the exchange still raises a heartwarming smile.
Virginia wrote the letter to the paper, not to her priest or her principal, because in her pre-TV and pre-internet world, the newspaper was the authority. Church's response was so well-crafted because he appreciated the newspaper's special authority.
Since my colleagues and I acquired The Berkshire Eagle and its sister publications, I have been repeatedly reminded of the sense of ownership and pride that our readers attach to our paper.
Three letters that I received during the Christmas season epitomized the depth of this newspaper's relationship to our community, so much so that I felt compelled to let you know.
Last fall, an envelope appeared in my mail. It was typed and addressed to me but it had no return address. Inside, there was a letter that appeared to have been written on a word processor, again addressed to me, asking for a favor.
The writer said a recent article "was about Thanksgiving and families and of course the kids." The writer then said, "I enclosed a money order in the amount of $130. I did it that way. What do you think, whatever way you think best is OK with me."
And, the writer signed off, "Thank you, respectfully, " adding his or her initials.
Frankly, I was bowled over at the power of the paper to be a force for such unqualified good in our community.
Who was this person whose identity was limited to three initials? What significance did the amount — $130 — have to the donor? Was it all that was left from a month's budget, a month's Social Security benefit, the balance in a bank account? Or, was it simply an amount that felt right?
Also, I was bowled over that this person entrusted me with the disposition of this very precious sum; like Virginia, this person turned to the newspaper — not a civic leader, clergyman or other authority. For the record, the money became the first contribution to this year's Eagle Santa Fund drive, guaranteeing that it will go to "the kids."
Shortly before Christmas, Bob Wilmers, my friend and colleague in this paper's ownership, died unexpectedly. Much has been written in this paper about Bob's extraordinary life, but a short coda to the stories of his beneficence sets up a better story.
Exactly two weeks before Bob's death, we had a board meeting at The Eagle. And as always, Bob attended, participated and was the center of gravity. At the end of the meeting, I reported that the Santa Fund campaign was not doing as well as it did last year, but efforts were being made to make certain it reached its goal.
When the meeting was over, Bob asked me to send him some information about the Santa Fund, and I did so a few days later.
The day after Bob died was a dark and dreary December Monday, and everyone — and I mean everyone — at the paper was walking around shell-shocked at the news. In the afternoon, I got around to looking at my mail, and once again, I was bowled over. Bob had sent a simple note stating that the check he had enclosed was for the Santa Fund. It was the largest contribution in the history of the Santa Fund, and it ensured that we surpassed our annual goal.
Shortly before Christmas, I received a card from a woman in Pittsfield that contained wonderful compliments about The Eagle and our staff. And it ended with hopes for "a prosperous and enlightening New Year at The Eagle!" The woman also enclosed a donation — a $200 check to support our mission — payable to The Berkshire Eagle.
I could not believe it. Our publisher with 30 years experience in the industry had never heard of such generosity, and neither had Judi Lipsey, my colleague in this newspaper's ownership whose late husband, Stan, was publisher of the Buffalo News for more than 35 years. Indeed, no one to whom I have told this story had ever heard of a subscriber sending a donation to a for-profit newspaper.
It was truly astounding that a reader could have been so impressed with our reporting of "important national issues [and] extremely important local ones as well" that she opened her checkbook without being asked and sent a sizable donation without directions or restrictions.
Last week, as I was settling into my new job as publisher, I saw a card with a return address showing it came from a friend in Stockbridge. It was a beautiful holiday card that noted thoughtfully that I was about to start the new year without the support of two important friends. I went on to add a "vote of confidence" that The Eagle would "soon be recognized at the best local newspaper in the country!" The vote of confidence was substantiated with a check payable to The Eagle for $100.
For the second time in a month, we had received an unsolicited donation made to help ensure our future, the future of the entire Berkshire community. Both of these generous donors were so concerned that the paper go on that they opened their wallets without being asked. They understand that a healthy local newspaper makes the community richer and stronger, and they also understand that keeping independent, quality local news reporting is not a spectator sport.
Incidentally, the donations to The Eagle are being used to subsidize subscribers who are having difficulty paying to maintain their subscriptions.
On behalf of my colleagues Judi Lipsey and Hans Morris and the family of the late Bob Wilmers, I offer profound a thank you to everyone who appreciates the efforts that result in our publication of a newspaper of which the community is proud. And personally, I would like to thank the three readers who have proven to me that, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
Fredric D. Rutberg is president and publisher of The Berkshire Eagle.