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"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"
Edward P. Mitchell, managing editor of The Sun, spoke of Francis Ph. Church's writing as "infused with well-bred humor, sometimes gentle, sometimes sly, occasionally even mordant, but with a bite that never deposited venom. It was employed on a wide range of subjects." He said that sometimes "this unmistakable individuality occupying a column or so with a discussion of other newspapers ... (displayed) an insight into journalistic character."
"There was never a more delightful associate," Mitchell added. "Quick of perception of the interesting in every phase of human activity except politics ... there was in his features something of that gentlemanly pugnacity."
It was Mitchell who had assigned Church to reply to a request from a young reader - Laura Virginia O'Hanlon. In Mitchell's 1924 words: "One day in 1897 I handed to him (Frank) a letter that had come in the mail from a child of eight, saying: 'Please tell me the truth: is there a Santa Claus?' Her little friends had told her no. Church bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested that he write a reply to Virginia O'Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk. In a short time he had produced the article which has probably been reprinted during the past quarter of a century, as the classic expression of Christmas sentiment, more millions of times than any other newspaper article ever written by any newspaper-writer in any language."
The original Sept. 21 date has puzzled some people. It surfaced then because that is when Virginia sent her letter. Dick Thompson [a Church family member] theorizes that she had returned to school from summer vacation and with other children chattered of the coming holidays - Thanksgiving, Christmas. Virginia later called some of her classmates "less fortunate" (recalling that her father was a physician) whose families didn't have the means to make Santa Claus real. They naturally said there was no Santa. To settle the conflict she wrote to The Sun as was the custom of her family when they had a question.
The Sun had a policy of never revealing who wrote any of its editorials. It relented only once. Francis Ph. Church's 1906 obituary disclosed for the first time that he had been the author of the Christmas classic, although the family had known this well - always good for conversation at those illimitable reunions. His wife, Elizabeth Wickham Church, survived him.
About the only recognition of the editorial on its 100th birthday, Sept. 21, 1997, were in The New York Times with a very readable story by Thomas Vinciguerra and at the 1997 convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers with reflections by columnist Rick Horowitz in which he finds a lesson for today's writers [see below]. He followed it with a special piece for The Roanoke (Va.) Times Dec. 4, 1997.
A 1992 book reprinted "Yes, Virginia." It had a foreword and notes by Christine Allison, who spoke of Frank Church as "curmudgeonly" — a wrong adverb.
A 1991 TV movie had it all wrong. Church was characterized as a drunken street fighter (he actually was a teetotaling Baptist) whose wife had died (she in fact outlived him) during childbirth (in fact, they had no children). Virginia's father, Doctor Philip O'Hanlon was portrayed as a poor Irish immigrant.
Earlier there was a harmless TV cartoon with Jim Backus doing the voice of Church.
Yes, Virginia, It's a Special Occasion
By Rick Horowitz
September 20, 1977
I want to talk about even bigger anniversary, the 100th anniversary of arguably the most famous editorial ever to appear in a newspaper in this country.
It happened in New York City, where a century ago a Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, coroner's assistant, came face-to-face with a minor family crisis. In 1897, O'Hanlon's daughter - his only child - came to him in some confusion. She'd been talking to her friends, and what she heard from those friends worried her. Could her father help her out?
He did what any father would do under the circumstances: He passed the buck. He suggested she write a letter to the newspaper instead - to The Sun. They'd have an answer she could rely on, he told her.
"If you see it in The Sun," he liked to say, "it's so." So that's what she did: Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon - yes, Virginia O'Hanlon - sent her letter off to the newspaper.
Now, working at The Sun at that time was a man named Francis Pharcellus Church. He'd been a Civil War correspondent for The New York Times, editor of The Army and Navy Journal, editor of Galaxy literary magazine. He'd been with The Sun for 20 years, and in 1897, he was: an editorial writer.
When Church's boss gave him O'Hanlon's letter, Church was not a happy man. He bristled, the boss later reported. He pooh-poohed. And I can't really blame him; editorial writers have better things to do with their time - or so I'm told - than responding to letters from eight-year-olds.
But he did it anyway.
It was no big deal. In fact, the day it ran, it was the seventh editorial on the page - after editorials on state and local and regional politics, on British naval strength in the Atlantic, on plans for a Canadian railroad to help bring back gold from the Yukon. Even after an editorial on a newfangled chainless» bicycle.
But the editorial ran. It ran on September 21, 1897, exactly 100 years ago tomorrow.
And its title was Virginia's very own question: Is There a Santa Claus?»
You may have seen it once or twice...
It's not just the most famous, but the most beloved editorial of all -beloved by readers, and especially beloved by editors. After all, they don't have to write another Christmas piece of their own every year - they can just slap Francis Church and "Yes, Virginia" up there and go directly to the office party.
Now, as we mark this special occasion, I ask you not to grieve too much for a time when newspapers had the space - and the staff - to run seven editorials a day. For a time where people still believed, If you see it in the paper, it's so.»
And put aside for a moment the perfectly reasonable question, "What's a Christmas editorial doing running in the middle of September?"
Instead, I ask you to join me in celebrating Virginia O'Hanlon, who wrote the letter, and Francis Church, who provided, not just the answer, but a valuable lesson for all of us in this business.
And that lesson is: You never know. You never know which of your efforts will grab people, and which of your words might be headed for immortality.
So, a toast to opinions that last: Yes, Virginia - and Yes, Francis Pharcellus Church - Happy 100th Anniversary!
Copyright 1997 Rick Horowitz
This is a question that, notwithstanding Frank Church, remains unanswered to this day. In short, how do you answer The Inevitable Question?
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