Steve Hartman helps make the world a little nicer, a little kinder with his gentle perspective. He is loved by everyone who knows him and even by those, like me, who have never met him. He tells stories of people who make us smile, who make us try harder, who give us hope, who soften our worry. I always feel better after a Steve Hartman story, stories he shares with the public through CBS and his On the Road program. Hartman’s On the Road series aired on CBS for thirteen years beginning in 1967 and was brought to life again in 2011, winning Hartman several awards. Viewers have come to count on the positive stories that end the Friday CBS Evening News.
In 2020, Steve shared the story of a mailbox that appeared in Geprags Community Park in Hinesburg, Vermont. Hinesburg isn’t a big metropolis, with a population of 4,698 in the 2020 census, but in 2011 someone, under the cloak of darkness, erected a mailbox in the forest of the park with no explanation other than three letters on the side of the mailbox – DAD. Since then, letters were placed inside the mailbox by Barry Lampke, letters written to his father George Lampke who passed away in April of 2010. Barry and his father had exchanged many letters over the years and in his father’s passing, Barry missed those opportunities to chat with pen and paper. It was he who erected the mailbox, but it wasn’t just he who wrote the letters. Visitors to the park peaked inside the mailbox and discovered the letters and they, too, began to write, to share their words in honour of fathers who had passed on. Barry kept his identity hidden until 2020 when Steve Hartman came calling.
Some of my most treasured possessions are the letters written to me by my father. I often read them when I need to feel his connection and though he has been gone forty-nine years this Thanksgiving weekend, the letters never fail to bring him close, never fail to conjure up the feeling of my tiny hand slipping inside his, and never fail to allow me to hear his laugh. His handwriting never changed; his numbers made precisely. His signature was so like that of his father and his brother, that placed side by side it could take a minute to decipher which was which, and “back in the day” when banks used signatures to match cheques with bank accounts, the cheques were sometimes drawn on the wrong account.
When I visit Fort Frances now, despite my age and the years that have passed, I seem to expect things to be just as he left them. I seem to think that if I run down Wilson Road, not pausing to catch frogs in the ditches on either side, not noticing that what we called “the bump” in our road is hardly more than a rise, that I will find him in the barn, shaking out straw to bed down the cows, or pouring barley into the grain crusher with its deafening noise and dust, that I’ll find him fixing fence or sitting at the table drafting plans to some structure he would love to build. But that is never the case, and I am always surprised as though something went terribly wrong in my journey and I ended up in the wrong place.
I wrote letters to my dad after his passing, letters that mostly begged for his return, letters that pleaded my case on why he shouldn’t have left me, letters that talked of our plans to farm together when I was done school and letters that, over time, morphed into gratitude for the years we had together rather than the many years without him. I wrote him poems that would win no literary prize. I asked his advice. I didn’t know who I was without him back then, and some days I’m still not sure. But that is more privilege now than heartache.
Maybe I’ll erect a mailbox in my yard and slip letters in it from time to time to have a chat with my dad. Maybe I’ll make a list of all the things he taught me with his character, with his kindness, and with his love. It would be a very long list and I was a very lucky kid. I think Barry Lampke’s idea was spot on.