Life, Revisited

We get them all the time. A hand-scrawled letter looking for an obituary, a few bucks thrown in an envelope. Our normal fee for a death notice is fifteen dollars, and if what they send is short, I usually ask the patron for more money before fulfilling the request.

This one, from a Martha Ward in Quincy, Illinois, seemed a little different. Even though she only put a five-dollar bill in an envelope, I sensed a certain sincerity about her that differed from some of the more demanding letters. I filled her request and asked her, if it was at all possible, could she send the other ten dollars? I never expected to see the money and didn’t really worry about it.

Not only did the money immediately show up but additional funds along with it in hopes of finding an obituary of her long-lost husband, whom she hadn’t heard from since 1962. It had been reported to her that he had passed away in 1999, according to an alumni journal, and she was hoping to get closure by viewing something more tangible. As a bit of a clue, she mentioned two of his brothers, both priests.

Any attempts at locating the final resting place of the ex, Vincent Ward, were dead ends; no Social Security Death Index entry, nothing in any local papers. However, I tried the brothers’ obituaries, if there were any, as the next bread crumb. One brother who passed in 1981 led to another brother, passing in 1990. Vincent was listed in both notices, living in Hamlin, NY. But still no death date or obit for him…

I decided to try Ancestry.Com to see if he might turn up anywhere at all. According to the US Public Records Index there, Vincent was living in Hamlin well into the ’90s.

I’m not sure what possessed me then to try a current phone book, but there was a V Ward right in it living in Hamlin. By now, the mystery had grabbed hold, which does happen often in our profession, and I simply had to find out for myself. So I dialed…

…a young lady answered, and I asked if it was the home of Vincent Ward. Yes, she was his caretaker. Had he ever been married? Not that she knew of, so I unraveled the tale, as much as I knew, and that a woman named Martha thought he was deceased. Well, he’s sleeping right now, but she’ll go ask him as it was time to get up anyway. Minutes passed…

The caretaker returned saying she had no idea but yes, Vincent had been married, no he hadn’t seen her in almost 50 years, and sure, feel free to give her his number if she wanted to talk.

How often does this happen in the work of a librarian? I tracked down Martha’s number easily enough and called her straight away with what I discovered. She later told me that you could have picked her jaw right up off the floor.

Martha at first did not want to call Vincent as she felt the years of silence were a gap too hard to cross over. But long story short, she eventually did call him, and traveled from the tiny metropolis of Quincy to the tiny hamlet of Hamlin to visit her first and only husband, as evidenced by the photos below:

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Martha has remained a friend, writing back and forth, and I told her on her next visit I would make it a point to go see her or have her visit our library. This is one of those reference questions that you always treasure.

A final kicker for long-time children’s librarians: Martha is Martha Eads Ward, herself a librarian, the author of several reference works (see here) that are still in use today.     —-Bob Scheffel

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Published in: on January 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm  Comments (11)  

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This made me tear up. I am so glad you published this.

  2. What a heart-warming story! Love the photographs!

  3. In my 18 years working as a photographic archivist in a business archive, the most touching reference question I solved involved a retired adult patron adopted at birth who came looking for a possible photograph of his deceased birth mother. Our employee photographs were generally not identified, but I led him to bound issues of the employee magazine from the 1940s. He found one photo of her there and spent the rest of the afternoon looking at it. And crying.

  4. I often think that Local History librarians need counseling training! There are so many emotions that we delve into. this is a great story. Made my day.

  5. I am from Quincy and was on the chidren that visited her in the children sectoon of the library. My family has two signed copies of her books. She also put on puppet shows in the library on Saturdays and for special events. Her books, especially “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free,” helped me identify with the problems and drama in everyday life. Her writing helped me understand others. By all accounts, she is well respected citizen in Quincy and a hero to many.

  6. […] in January on this blog, I told the genuinely happy story of how I helped a woman from Illinois, Martha Eads Ward, find her […]

  7. What a great story! And a great way to start the day. Thanks Bob!

  8. This is an amazing story! Thank you so much for sharing it! Way to go, Bob! (and I plan on checking out some of the books Ms. Eads wrote on children’s literature!)

  9. I am that caregiver that went to see if Mr. Ward had been married. What a surprise to me! I have been with Mr. Ward since 2001 and had heard many of his life stories, but not that one. I had the pleasure of meeting Martha on her first visit to Hamlin but was away and missed her visit a couple of weeks ago. So glad they have found one another and enjoy corresponding back and forth!

  10. Just another little tidbit of information. My mother’s maiden name was Martha Roberta Ward, so when I first heard Mr. Scheffel say her name if caught me a little off guard.

  11. […] who she mistakenly thought had passed away. Rather than rehash the tale, you can read about it here and […]


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