Forty years ago this week, I reflected on something pretty significant to me personally in a Dec. 19, 1979 editorial titled “Ten Years: A Personal Christmas Memory.”
I was reminded about the events that prompted that editorial several weeks ago while paging through the 1969 Couriers, collecting tidbits for our weekly “History” features.
The headline on a front page article from the Dec. 18, 1969 Courier, read:
“Air Fare Raised For Foreign Student To Go Home After Death Of Father.”
The story included a photo of Marina Chan and explained how she came from Hong Kong to Freeman in fall to attend Freeman Junior College. In summary, it explains that on Thursday, Dec. 11, Marina learned her father had died unexpectedly. She wanted to return to her home but the $1,000 airfare was well beyond her means. What happened next is at the heart of the story — literally, at the heart. By 2:30, the next afternoon Marina was on her way to the Sioux Falls airport, thanks to a student-initiated fundraising project that covered the cost of a round-trip ticket to her home. The story notes “Marina is now in Hong Kong with her mother. She is there because the Freeman community cared. A lesson in the spirit of Christmas has resulted in this story.”
Publisher Glenn Gering editorialized about it in the Dec. 18, 1969 Courier, titled “A Compas-sionate Community,” praising both the response that enabled Marina’s trip and the students’ initiative that led to it.
My 1979 editorial/memory offers the back story to what had happened ten years earlier; it was something I wanted to share with Courier readers as a Christmas message that year. It was a one-off reflection based on a personal Christmas memory.
But a year later, the positive response to that 1979 editorial prompted me to dig back into my memory bank and I shared another personal Christmas memory in 1980. And with that, a 40-year tradition was launched. I’ve shared a personal Christmas memory with readers the week of Christmas every year since. They’ve become columns rather than editorials. But the message is the same; our memories help each of us celebrate the spirit of the season from unique perspectives and amplify its significance.
I’ve decided to start sharing my original Christmas memories columns again, heading back to where they began, 1979. There’s a new generation that has not read them and — this is key — they are timeless reminders of why this season is so special.
And so, with this issue, we’ll restart the cycle with the memory that kicked it off 40 years ago.
A LOOK BACK ON WHAT STARTED A TRADITION
Originally published Dec. 19, 1979
It was 10 years ago. I was a sophomore at Freeman Junior College and it was only two weeks from Christmas, December 12, 1969; a Christmas memory.
Marina Chan was a student at Freeman Junior College, a native of Hong Kong. As the rest of the students prepared for Christmas, her expected celebration was shattered by a cold, impersonal telephone message. A voice read a telegram message. Marina’s father had died in Hong Kong. End of message. It was December 11, 1969.
December 12: Marina was understandably upset. Her boyfriend arrived by plane from Ohio where he was attending Bluffton College. Marina was feeling very much alone.
Marina had come to Freeman in the fall of 1969 to study English and math. An only child, Marina wanted badly to return to be with her mother in Hong Kong at this time. But the round-trip airfare was an almost unthinkable $1,000.
At noon, it was learned that her return to Hong Kong held traditional significance and a decision was made.
Freeman Junior College was observing Founders Day (an annual day-long gathering in which the larger community commemorated the Dec. 14, 1900 official founding of the school). At noon, students began spreading the message among the people attending. Marina’s schoolmates were going to send her home … that afternoon. Tables were set up to collect donations.
Suddenly an overwhelming outpouring of compassion surfaced as dollar bills began to accumulate as students dug into their pockets only to see dollars matched and multiplied by people of the community. Within an hour and a half, over $500 in cash had been collected.
A personal loan was made in good faith that the balance of the money would be forthcoming.
By 2:30 the afternoon of Dec. 12, Marina left in tears … of gratitude. Her plane left Sioux Falls at 4:30 that afternoon. Marina was home for a sad, but reunited Christmas with her mother.
Marina returned to Freeman the next semester. Since then, I’ve lost track of her. But I’m sure her memories of December 12, 1969 and the acts of love from scores of Freeman people have not faded. I can still recall her as she left for Sioux Falls that afternoon: “Tell all of the people, ‘thank you.’”
1969: Nationally, Vietnam had split the country. Locally, a controversy over “The Schoolhouse” was a divisive issue in the community. Yet suddenly, that afternoon, concern and compassion for Marina brought about a common interest and a unity of purpose. That day – and from then on – I saw in a new way, a compassionate and caring side of the Freeman community.
That Christmas was a special one for those of us who took part in the project of caring. Christmases since have been special because of what happened on that cold Friday in December.
The Christmas message of love, sacrifice, sharing and joy is timeless. The memory of how this community responded to Marina is very special, particularly on this, the tenth anniversary.
It is my wish that each of you has a similar warm Christmas feeling. This is a very special season.
Tim L. Waltner first became editor of the Courier in 1973 and was publisher from 1984 to 2016. He remains on staff as a contributing editor, writer and photographer.