Monday, July 19, 2021

Legacy of a Handwritten Letter

“Mom, mom, guess what?” yelled Sarah running in the house after school one day.

I was waiting for her in the kitchen, watching out the window for the bus to arrive.

“What is it?” I asked, wondering why my usually quiet fifth grader was so excited.

“Mrs. Bayh, the governor’s wife, is coming to a meeting of the Just Say No Club. Since I’m the co-captain, I get to introduce her!”

“Wow, Sarah. That’s quite an honor.”

“I want to get started on my speech right away.” Sarah said, walking to the roll-top desk in the living room. “Mrs. Bayh is a lawyer. You know I want to be a lawyer too. I can’t wait to meet her.”  Sarah gathered a few sheets of paper and a pencil. 

The Just Say No nationwide movement was introduced in the 1980’s to discourage children from engaging in illegal recreational drug use by offering various ways of saying “no.” The slogan was created and championed by First Lady, Nancy Reagan, during her husband’s presidency.

I checked on Sarah a few minutes later. She was bent over the desk, her hand moving quickly across the paper as she wrote her introduction. What an exciting time for a young child to meet the governor’s wife.  Mrs. Bayh made children one of her highest priorities while she was First Lady. Attending a local Indianapolis school’s Just Say No Club was a way of supporting the popular movement.

Mrs. Bayh came to Sarah’s school in April 1989. Sarah worked hard over the next few days, preparing her speech. The day before the visit, my husband Mike, our four-year-old Anna, and I gathered in the living room to listen to Sarah’s remarks. She read with expression and interest. We clapped when she finished.

Usually hard to awaken for school, Sarah bounded out of bed the next day and gobbled the bowl of oatmeal I prepared for her.

“I hope the day goes fast!” she said as I brushed her hair, pulling it back and fastening with a barrette. 

“Today will be a memorable one for sure,” I said, “What an honor and inspiration to meet the First Lady of Indiana when you are only ten years old.” Gathering her backpack and lunch box, Sarah ran out the side door to catch the bus.

Mike, Anna and I arrived at the school just in time to see Mrs. Bayh escorted into the cafeteria  by security with Sarah right next to her. Sarah delivered her introduction with poise and enthusiasm. I cherish the picture I took of Mrs. Bayh smiling and looking at her while she talked.

Returning from school that afternoon, Sarah came in the side door, still excited about the day.

“I want to write Mrs. Bayh a letter and tell her I want to be a lawyer just like her.”

Sarah grabbed a sheet of paper and pencil, and returned to the roll-top desk.

Watching Sarah write reminded me of when I was a twelve-year-old seventh grader in January 1961. John Kennedy was just inaugurated president. He and his wife brought new energy to the White House and were adored by the nation.

Sharing the same first name with the new First Lady helped me feel a kinship to someone famous I would never meet. Walking home from school one day in late January, I decided to write the president a letter. I went to the desk in my bedroom, pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil, and began to write. I remember mentioning to the president that his wife and I shared the same name, and that I thought she was beautiful. I wished him good luck in his work, and signed my letter.

The White House address was well known, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I completed the envelope, found a stamp, and my letter was ready to go. I put it in the outside mailbox attached to our house. A few weeks later, I received a form letter saying the president had received my letter and thanked me, along with a stamped signature.

 I continued the practice of writing letters to presidents and their wives. In July 1976, I wrote a letter to Betty Ford because of her response to a medical emergency in New York while she was attending a dinner celebrating the new American National Bicentennial Park in Israel. A rabbi at the event collapsed from a heart attack. Mrs. Ford went to the speaker’s microphone and led the audience in prayer.

Mrs. Ford sent me a typed letter responding specifically to what I had written. She said,

Dear Mrs. Reed,

I was deeply touched by your kind words regarding my prayer for Dr. Maurice Sage.

During times of such tragedy, we can only turn to the Father of all for His blessing and strength, and I am heartened to know my words offered comfort to so many.

Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

With warm regards,


Betty Ford


Mrs. Ford signed the letter, which I saved along with the article about her prayer which appeared in TIME Magazine.

In February 1977, I wrote a letter to Rosalynn Carter. I don’t remember my thoughts, but she replied with a form response.

Thank you for your kind letter. I appreciate your support and friendship, and Jimmy joins me in sending our best wishes.

  Rosalynn Carter 

Finally, I wrote to Jimmy Carter in January 1987, following his presidency. He replied with a typed letter and signature.

To Jacquie Reed:

Thank you for your recent letter. Your kind words and support mean a great deal to me.

With best wishes.




I was thrilled to receive these four responses to my correspondence to presidential families. When Sarah wanted to write to Mrs. Bayh, I was pleased, thinking she was carrying on my legacy of writing to public servants.

When she completed her letter, I did not go over it for spelling or grammar. I wanted Mrs. Bayh to read her thoughts as she expressed them. We put the letter in an envelope, got a stamp, addressed it, and out it went in the mail.

“I hope Mrs. Bayh answers my letter, Sarah said, as we walked to the mailbox. “I know she is a busy person. But I met her, so maybe she will remember me and reply.”

We smiled walking back to the house. I, too, hoped Mrs. Bayh would answer Sarah’s letter, but I knew better than to expect it.

A few weeks later, I went to get the mail while Sarah was in school. In the pile of bills and advertisements, I saw a letter addressed to Sarah from the Governor’s office. I put the letter back in the mailbox so Sarah could enjoy the excitement of an answered letter.

When she came through the side door, I said, “Before you get your snack, would you get the mail?”

“Sure,” and off she went. I watched through the kitchen window. When she saw the letter from Mrs. Bayh, her mouth dropped. She slowly walked to the house, holding the envelope, looking at the front and back, savouring the moment of discovery and unexpected delight.

“What did you find?” I asked.

“Mrs. Bayh answered my letter. Do you believe that?”

“Let’s sit down at the kitchen table and open the letter. I wonder what she said!”

“I wonder if she liked that I want to be a lawyer like her.”

Carefully, Sarah opened the envelope and read these handwritten words.


February 9, 1989

Dear Sara,

Thank you for your kind letter. I would be pleased to answer your questions. I work as an attorney with Eli Lilly and Company, a large corporation on the south side of Indianapolis. I work exclusively in the federal regulatory area which means that my cases are only with the federal government.

In answer to your second questions – it is neat to be the Governor’s wife. I am blessed with a wonderful husband who takes care of me and because of my new position I am asked to go to exciting places and to do very interesting things and get great letters like yours!

Good luck to you in your future – See you in court!

Best regards,

Susan Bayh


Reading Mrs. Bayh’s kind and thoughtful response turned both of us into devoted fans of the First Lady. Sarah followed newspaper accounts of her activities in the state. I kept the letter because I thought one day Mrs. Bayh might be First Lady of the United States. The letter was also a continuation of the excitement Sarah experienced the day she met and introduced Mrs. Bayh.

A few weeks ago, after swimming, I checked my phone and found a text message from Sarah. She told me Mrs. Bayh had died following a two year struggle with glioblastoma, a fatal and aggressive form of brain cancer. I wasn’t surprised that Sarah would be the one to tell me of Mrs. Bayh’s passing, knowing her admiration and keen interest in her since elementary school.

When I returned home after hearing the news of Mrs. Bayh’s passing, I went to the scrapbook where I kept the photographs from the day of her visit to the school as well as the letter she wrote to Sarah. The letter was important when Sarah received it, but it took on even more meaning with Mrs. Bayh’s passing. Susan Bayh left a lasting imprint on the life of a young girl and her family years ago by taking time to write a letter. Now that she has died, the letter keeps giving and carries on her legacy of thoughtfulness, an example of how she took time to reflect and reply to a young child who admired her. 

Nowadays people usually write letters to public servants to complain, make a demand, express disagreement with policy, or give their thoughts on other matters. Writing to express admiration may be less frequent, but perhaps more important as the character of the individual is observed and honored. The personal attributes of Susan Bayh, Betty Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Rosalyn Carter impacted me. I prayed each of my letters, and Sarah’s, was a voice of encouragement and support amidst the challenges of leadership.


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