Wichita At age 98, the only thing Wichitan Robert Ford told his family he wanted was some cards for Christmas.
His daughter-in-law, Lynn Ford, thought about it. She had a cousin who was a first-grade teacher in Summerville, Ga.
“Lynn sent me an email in December. I felt like I could help her out with that,” said the cousin, Laura Gamble. “The first-graders made him some Christmas cards, approximately 110 cards. After that, he wanted to do something for the children. I told Lynn that was a lot of children to do something for.”
And so, a correspondence began between the old man and the children. He tells what it was like growing up when he was their age: how he went on a snipe hunt, what harvest time was like, what it was like to use a phone with a party line; how his family operated the Marple Theatre in Wichita; and what it was like when the ice man came. The short stories are in three-ring binders so the teachers can read to the students.
They send him letters filled with “X’s” and “O’s.”
A learning experience
Other Summerville classes have joined in. Now, four first-grade classes eagerly wait for his stories.
The walls of his College Hill house are lined with cards.
A hand-drawn bee is scribbled on front of a folded red construction-paper note. Inside, the letter filled with a smiley face and red hearts reads: “I hop you have a grt day. Hugs and loves. Happy Valentine’s Day. I love your Storey.”
Another child drew a picture of a pickup truck.
It’s been a learning experience for the first-graders, Gamble said. From the perspective of someone more than nine decades older, the children are learning how technology has changed their childhoods. For instance, when Ford wrote about how the ice man would visit his house two to three times a week to put a block of ice in the icebox, one girl grew concerned.
She raised her hand and told Gamble: “It’s OK, he doesn’t have an ice maker; we have to flip the ice out of our trays, too.”
A new lease on life
Ford was born in 1913. His parents, Arthur and Blanche Ford, owned and operated the Marple Theatre. Ford worked 25 years at Cessna as an engineer and 10 years at the Coleman Co. Before that, he worked in the construction industry, building houses.
He misses his wife, Genevieve, who died in 2004 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. They lived in the same house for more than half a century.
From 1957 until recently, he worked at Kings-X Restaurants, three hours a day, four days a week, fixing equipment — mixers, toasters and waffle irons. He never called in sick.
Writing his childhood stories has given him a new lease on life, Lynn Ford said.
Recently, he was busy making 125 cardboard airplanes — the type you propel with rubber bands — for the children.
The children have worried about Mr. Ford. He has no video games. He told them how he used to play Red Rover.
They write him knock-knock jokes.
A sample of one of Ford’s stories is simply called “Farm - Sheep.”
“For us kids the day was not complete until we climbed the big wooden fence that surrounded the corral where the sheep were brought in for the night. It was a ritual to bring them in for the night to feed them and protect them. If left out in the pasture, coyotes might get some of the lambs . We could watch for hours.”
That’s fascinating reading for 6-year-olds nearly 900 miles from Wichita.
“Mr. Ford,” wrote one student, “I am glad you are alive. XOXO.”