Merced County Times Newspaper
The Power of Positive Press

Ode To A Longtime Pen Pal, Betty Stewart

John Derby Headshot
Times Publisher John Derby

She was in her 80s, and I was in my 70s, when I received my first letter from Betty Stewart, written in the most beautiful handwriting I had seen since my dad died — and he had attended Calligraphy classes.

The letter was written on yellow-lined pad paper, just the same as the pads which I used to write on when I covered the stories of the local city council and other meetings.

I knew the name, Stewart; however, I am not sure I would have known Betty if I passed her on the street. She was involved in many boards, and the main one was the Mercy Hospital Foundation.

Her letter was not about any of them, and instead she wrote about an article I had written and published in the paper. It was what one might call a cheerleader letter, packed with praise for our hometown newspaper, and its mission of Positive Press.

It was the kind of letter which makes a publisher feel his worth, and also brings out the pride in the staff who make it all happen.

When I put the letter down, I sat and tried to respond, writing by hand on a yellow pad, but my handwriting was a far cry from the flowing script of the letter I had received.

That was the start of a wonderful relationship which would only stop just days ago when she took her pen and pad to heaven with her.

We were pen pals for about a dozen years, and I learned more about the early history of Merced then I could have found in any history book.

Betty Stewart was Merced.

In time, I met her and her family, all fine people who achieved success in their fields, and some returned to be with her as she aged.

She was 94, and the last letter was written to me in March. Mail service in Mexico, where I have a second home, is impossible, so it wasn’t until April that I finally received the letter. Never had she written of the pain she was experiencing, but this time it was wearing on her, and I could read it between the lines of her still beautiful script.

Two weeks ago, I wrote my last letter to her. And then, just a day before her passing, her March letter resurfaced on my desk.

I still don’t know how it managed to get there; however, my pen pal had somehow found a way to say goodbye.

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