A surprising story about letters to the editor

Those of you who follow this column periodically probably know that, in addition to being the San Antonio Express-News public editor, or ombudsmen, I also select and edit letters to the editor.

I took on the latter duties in in the spring of 2009, and, for the most part, enjoy refereeing the repartee among readers and between readers and me. I think — without being too pious, I hope — that letters to the editor play a small but vital role in democracy. A politician is skewered every day in the Express-News. That doesn’t happen in a dictatorship.

Anyway, we’re hardly ever at a loss for letters. We think the diversity of the letters we print reflects the diversity of the populace we serve. As of Dec. 16, we’ve published 2,944 letters to the editor in 2011, about one of every five received, approximately 8.2 a day.

The exception to this flow of mail is around the holidays, when that flow becomes a trickle.

Last week, I thought I had a plan to address the shortage: Go back in the archives 70 years, to post-Pearl Harbor December 1941, pull the best letters to the editor from readers of the cities three daily papers, the Express, Evening News and Light, and re-print them.

I assembled a team consisting of Kevin Frazzini from our research staff, Kellie Benn, a Trinity student who assists me two days a week, and yours truly.

We went into the bowels of the Express-News, where our ancient microfilm records are stored, and trolled back to December 1941.

We were surprised to find no letters to the editor and no letters to the editor section. In fact, the editorial pages of San Antonio’s three newspapers were pretty skimpy.

So I asked Kellie to search the microfilm from December 1951. She found lots about the Korean War, but no letters. Ditto in 1961.

In fact, Kellie’s research indicated the first letters to the editor section in the San Antonio Express came on April 5, 1962, with a lead letter from an insurance man criticizing an editorial on something called the Driver Responsibility Law.

The author, W. Evans Fitch, a member of the Alamo Chapter of the Society of Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriters, noted that his family had subscribed to the Express “since the ’90s” (that would be the 1890s), that he was “one of (the paper’s) original delivery boys” and closed with a stinger:

“I am sure that the local chapter would be glad to assist your editorial staff at any time in proof reading for accuracy any editorials that you would like to have presented as accurate.” Touché, Mr. Fitch!

Here’s a snippet from another 1962 letter — about the proposed Medicare bill, from a local doctor, Charles R. Leone Jr.:

“What does all this add up to?” he wrote. “It adds up to an estimated $2.5 billion program to provide the same care and treatment that is presently given without government intervention and control.”

Except for the cost figure, the letter would be printable today.

So, to get to my point today, we aren’t able to print those imagined letters from Christmases during World War II, but if any of you have remembrances you’d like to share from that era, or from the Korean War in 1951 or Vietnam in ’61 or ’71, we’d like to publish some of them. Just send them to me.

This column was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News on Dec. 17, 2011.
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