From a normal APS donation, a family's long-lost memories
In May of 2020 the American Philatelic Society received a donation from a member, Patrick Coakley, who had found a set of love letters within a box of covers he bought in bulk at a stamp show. Patrick wanted to preserve the correspondence, the expressive and poetic writing shared from Harriet Sharon to Dr. Edward Willingham in the 1920s.
As the Development Assistant at the APS, hundreds of donations go through my hands every week, but I shared Patrick’s belief that these letters were special. The story might have ended there, except that I am also working towards a certification as a professional genealogist. My passion is bringing together people who have lost contact - these letters were trying to find their way home.
My first step was to search for the name and address written on the letters through Ancestry. With this initial search I was lucky to find a match almost instantly by way of multiple census records from 1930 and 1940, and from there I made sure the names and addresses aligned with the letters. It was also a pleasant surprise to find two children listed in the census records. Soon after, I found an obituary record on Ancestry and Family Search for Rev. Dr. Edward Willingham whose biography matched with information from the letters, census records, listed children and additional family members.
After some reflection, I began to search for Harriet and Edward’s children to return the handwritten correspondence between their parents that were such wonderful family heirlooms. It became clear that I had found all that I could from the records of the past and would need to widen my search for Edward and Harriet’s children. I began a general search of their names on Google while keeping in mind the details I had gathered thus far. At one point I came upon a link to an oral history of two individuals regarding their time living in Minneapolis – Harriet Johnson and her husband Walter “Cork” Johnson. This oral history intrigued me since Minneapolis is not too far from Missouri where the Willingham family had lived, according to the 1940s census. After cross checking addresses, census records and another obituary record for Walter “Cork” Johnson, I made an informed decision that this might be the Harriet I was looking for, the daughter of Dr. Edward and Harriet Willingham. With my research in hand as well as a phone number from an online phone book, I took the next step on a long journey to reach out to the person I had been looking for since May.
Within the day of my voicemail message to the phone number I hoped was Harriet’s, I received a call back from a sweet voice curious about my outreach. Within minutes I was able to confirm that she was the Harriet that I was looking for. The next minutes were filled with wonder and excitement for both of us, as we talked about the journey the letters had already taken to get to the APS, their fond contents, and a plan to return them to their family. That day I made a friend for life with Harriet, who has the biggest heart and was open to sharing her family history and experience with being reunited with these letters.
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Harriet Johnson, the daughter of letter writer Harriet Sharon and Edward Willingham.
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Harriet Sharon's love letters to her then-fiance Edward ended up as a donation to the American Philatelic Society before APS Development Assistant Erin Seamans tracked down Harriet's daughter.
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Courtesy of daughter Harriet Johnson, her parents Harriet and Edward Willingham.
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Courtesy of daughter Harriet Johnson, her parents Harriet and Edward Willingham.
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Two of the covers that turned out to be priceless family keepsakes for Harriet Johnson and her family.
Did you know about these letters growing up?
My mother moved back here to Minneapolis after my father died in the 1980s. She gave me some genealogical materials once and asked me to put them somewhere until I was ready to look over them. And I asked her, “Are there any love letters between you and daddy?” She said, “No, we destroyed all those. I don't have any love letters from him and he destroyed mine.” Now we know he didn’t destroy hers, he put them in the bottom of his stamp box. So I didn’t know there were any until now. Your phone call was a double surprise – that anybody had found them or that they even existed.
Do you have any ideas of how these letters traveled from your parents to a donation to the American Philatelic Society?
My mother said that after my father’s death in 1973 she sent his box of stamps to my brother, who did have a stamp collection. That of course was years ago, and he may never have looked in the box. My brother passed away two years ago and his family sold his house, so my father’s box of stamps was probably cleared out during that time. I asked my niece about it and she had no awareness of the box of stamps. She and her sister had somebody come in to take everything. That unknown person is one of the key links and must be the person that had the box of stamps.
How did it feel receiving these letters and learning about your parents before they were married?
I’m so grateful, it has been wonderful for me. I think it's a wonderful story and I've told it to other people and I shared this experience with my family. I have had such fun with the letters, it's been a bright spot for the summer. It felt like a visit with my parents when I sat down on the sofa and read through the letters from the beginning through the end. It was a wonderful warm feeling for me. Particularly in this isolating time with so many truly upsetting things happening in the world, it was a wonderful little respite from the modern day world to read all these letters. When the letters arrived at the front desk everybody knew that they were coming and everybody clustered around me and told me to open up the box so everyone could see them.
Can you tell me about the stories you were told about how they met?
My mother had grown up in Minneapolis and when her father died, she moved back to this little town of Carrollton, Illinois, with her mother. My mother and father dated for quite a bit in college although when my mother graduated from college she went back to live with her mother in this little town. That was kind of the pattern in those days - you didn’t go roaring off to live by yourself, you went back to live with your parents. She went back to live with her mother and she wasn’t very happy, she told me.
One of the letters when she was writing to him was from just before they got engaged, May 18th. He was taking a trip out to a church convention in St Louis, which was about fifty miles away from where my mother lived – and remember, he had dated her in college, two years before, and they had not seen each other recently. He wrote to her that he was going to come up to visit for this church convention and would like to see her. She wrote back that she would love that. And he came up, and by the end of the weekend they were engaged.
She had been teaching high school in Carrollton for two years, but when my father showed up in May, she didn't have to stay in the little town anymore, that took care of that. As children, my brother and I went there and visited my grandmother and stayed in the house and met all the relatives. So as I read through the letters, I knew the people that she was talking about as she wrote to my father. She was educating him about her friends and relatives in this little town.
Was there anything in the letters that you didn’t know before?
What I learned from reading the letters was that she made a trip by train with her mother to Richmond, Virginia, to meet his family in the month of July. That's when he gave her the ring, and they took some pictures. I hadn’t known this, so I decided to look for pictures of the two of them at that time. I went down to the basement and went through a box of pictures and found a picture of the two of them. She had a ring on her finger and was posing so you could see it on her hand. I'm sure that is one of the pictures they took on that trip.
So I got a better idea of the months between the time they were engaged and married on August 15th. I knew about the engagement and wedding but had know idea what happened in between. That’s what you helped me learn.
Were either of your parents stamp collectors?
My father was. I think he saved them from envelopes that he received from his job supervising missionaries overseas in various countries.
What do you look forward to doing with these letters now that you have them?
I don’t want to break up the collection. It covers three important months in my parents’ lives.
I'm trying to decide how to make it possible for my nieces and two sons to have copies of the letters to make a booklet for my family.