I know of only two moments that justifies the sin of pride. Both are a Horace Mann moment, the first, of course, when you have “won some victory for humanity”, and the second is when a child raised by you does the same. Consider the example of Philip F. O'Hanlon, who in his own life achieved wealth and professional and public recognition. In 1886, right out of N.Y. University Medical School, this sixth generation physician became the head of surgery at the new Gouverneur Community Hospital, on Manhattan’s lower east side.. He was appointed the State Medical Examiner in 1891, and in 1895 became New York City Coroner and Police Surgeon. The later two posts made him famous, and his testimony front page news in several big murder trials. But it was as a father that Philip O'Hanlon won his victory for humanity, because his daughter was Laura Virginia O”Hanlon.
Laura Virginia (above, she was named after her mother), was born July 20th, 1889, the same year the family leased a larger home, at 115 West 95th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, just a block west of Central Park. It was a relatively new brownstone, with a red brick front and peaked roof, having just one previous owner. As she reached the age of reason, she decided she preferred the name Virginia. And in the late summer of 1897, Virginia approached her father with a simple but profound question, belying her innocence and tender age.
Fifty years later Virginia remembered the event this way: “Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, for he had never disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said there wasn't any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my father, and he was a little evasive on the subject....It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as to how to pronounce a word or some question of historical fact was in doubt, we wrote to the Question and Answer column in “The Sun”. Father would always say, “If you see it in the The Sun, it's so,” and that settled the matter. “Well, I'm just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth,” I said to father. “He said, “Go ahead, Virginia. I'm sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does.”
Consider for a moment this privileged Victorian child, Virginia O'Hanlon (above) - the daughter of a well known community leader in New York City. At eight years of age she knew children who were less fortunate than herself, knew them well enough to talk with them, to share the theology of childhood. She was raised in a home in which the family shared knowledge, and the joy of discovery. Parents and their only child learned together. And she was encouraged to seek truth on her own.
So early in September of 1897, Virginia wrote the following letter. “Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun it’s so.” Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” She mailed it to The Sun newspaper offices, at 280 Broadway, New York City.
The Sun (“It Shines for All”) had been published in New York since 1833, but in 1868 it was acquired by its most famous editor, Charles Anderson Dana (above). Under Dana “The Sun” was a strongly Democratic newspaper, and “a newspaper man's newspaper”, and first of the modern newspapers, introducing editorials, society news, and human-interest stories, along side the “news”, all forced into eight pages or less, two editions every weekday, and recently even a Sunday edition, with a circulation at its peak of 130,000. Dana collected about him young, talented writers, and who followed his concisely stated revolutionary approach to news: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”
But as Dana aged, “The Sun” became “notoriously inconsistent”. Others improved upon his method, like Joseph Pulitzer at the “New York World”, and built larger circulations, like William Randolph Hearst via his “Yellow Journalism”. By Charles Dana's death in 1897, and his replacement by his son Paul, “The Sun” had slipped to fourth along Newspaper Row (aka Park Row, above ) in lower Manhattan - “The World”, “The Tribune”, “The Times” and now lastly “The Sun”.
It was one of Dana's talented young writers, now an editor, Edward Mitchell, who was the father of modern Science Fiction. And in early September Mitchell handed Virginia O”Hanlon's letter to a 58 year old editorial writer, Francis Pharcellus Church (above). He was a Columbia graduate, who had reported on the horrors of the Civil War. With his brother, Church co-founded two successful magazines. According to Mitchell, after reading Virgiinia's letter “At first he pooh-poohed the subject a little. Then he took it, and in a short time handed me (the) article” And on September 21, 1897 in a standard 500 word unsigned editorial, printed in the middle of page seven, the journeyman writer responded to the little girl's letter.
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age...Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence....Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus...Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
The letter was not an instant success. It was not until the 1920's that the newspaper reprinted it annually. But by 1930, “The Sun” was receiving over 163,000 requests for reprints every year. Since then it has appeared in thousands of newspapers and books, decade after decade , and remains the most reprinted editorial in the English language. But it was not until after his death on April 11, 1906, that The Sun broke their own rules and named Francis Church as the author. Church never married and had no children. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
In 1898, young William Randolph Hearst, in building his own newspaper empire, drove America into war with Spain. Virginia's father, Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, volunteered as lieutenant in the Medical Reserve Corps. He survived that service, and was listed as still alive in 1920, and still living on 95th street, although now on the south side of the street.
Virginia O'Hanlon (above) received her B.A. from Hunter College in 1910, a Master's in Education from Columbia University in 1912, and the same year she began teaching underprivileged grade school children in New York City schools. In 1913 she married Edward Douglas, but he abandoned her just before she gave birth to her daughter, Laura Temple Douglas, in March of 1914. She was eventually promoted to principal, and in 1930 was even awarded her doctorate from Fordham University. Her dissertation was titled “The Importance of Play.” Her daughter had seven children.
One of those grandchildren, Virginia Rogers (above, with Virginia), remembered as a child visiting her grandmother in New York City. “Gram was a lady. Very elegant. She would dress up to go across the street (to the)...post office. At Christmastime, there would be literally box-loads of mail addressed to my grandmother.” Another granddaughter said, “She was a woman ahead of her time.”
Virginia never took credit for the column her letter inspired. She told her nephew, James Temple, “All I did was ask the question. It was Mr. Church who did something wonderful.” Virginia told an interviewer, Church's column “gave me a special place in life I didn’t deserve. It also made me try to live up to the philosophy of the editorial and to try to make glad the heart of childhood.”
What Virginia did was to teach at Brooklyn’s P.S.401, which held classes for chronically ill children confined at home or in hospitals. Eventually she became a principle at the school. Shortly before she retired she wrote another letter, this one addressed to the “Children of Yesterday.” She pleaded, “Some little children doubt that Santa still lives because often their letters ...never seem to reach him. Nurses in hospitals know who some of these children are. Teachers in great city schools will know others....Won’t you try to seek out these trusting children of today and make sure that their letters in some way reach Santa Claus so that “he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.” Laura Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas had made that her life's work, finally retiring in 1950.
Nine years later she moved to North Chatham, 15 miles south of Albany, New York, to live with her daughter. During the Christmas holidays in 1969, heart problems forced Virginia to be admitted to the Columbia Memorial Hospital, in Hudson, New York. There she was visited by Santa Clause (above), disguised as John Harms, a hospital maintenance man, who often visited patients. He kissed Virginia on the cheek, and she whispered in his ear that she still believed. Virginia died, in the Barnwell Nursing Home, in Valatie, N.Y., on May 13, 1974. She was 81 years old.
Her original letter, which the newspaper had returned, was saved in a scrapbook by a granddaughter and somehow survived a house fire. Today, the brownstone at 115 West 95th street (above), is occupied by The Studio School, where children from “an economically diverse student body” (20% receive financial aid), “ learn to value intellectual and creative ideas, and to take pleasure in the process of discovery.” The school maintains a Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship Fund to help students with financial needs.
Late in her life, Virginia wrote the following. “Those whom Santa visits think of Christmas as a beautiful, sacred occasion which it should be — but today seldom is. But for every child tucked into bed Christmas night with his new toy, there are hundreds, no thousands, who huddle in ragged bed clothing sobbing in the night at a fate at best cruel.” And she asked us all to “Remember the children at Christmas.”
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