John Drescher

The power of a handwritten letter from Dad

From left, Steve Smith with his son Justin and his grandson Scott, paddling on the Waccamaw River in Columbus County.
From left, Steve Smith with his son Justin and his grandson Scott, paddling on the Waccamaw River in Columbus County. COURTESY OF JUSTIN SMITH

Justin Smith, 30, lives four blocks from his father in a small town in Eastern North Carolina and sees him at least once a week.

Yet several times a year he receives a handwritten note from his dad, as he has for much of his life, offering support and encouragement.

“I’m having a hard time accepting the fact that our son is a SENIOR at Carolina!” his father wrote in August 2006. “I write this letter to you as a father full of pride in his son and his accomplishments.

“The next 9-10 months will be challenging for you. … I have no doubt you will (continue to) make significant contributions to make it a better world.”

These days Smith, a TV reporter for WECT in Wilmington, receives almost no mail at his home in Whiteville. When he sees a hand-addressed envelope, he knows who it’s from. “I don’t think I get handwritten notes from anybody else,” Smith told me. “When you open the mailbox and there’s a note hand-addressed to you, it immediately sort of stops you in your tracks.”

One note from his dad, addressed to Smith and his wife, thanked them for their service to their community.

“I want to tell you both how very proud I am of both of you,” it said. “The two of you are great young people who have gotten very involved in your community. Please know you have our full support and love.”

Smith’s father, Steve, 64, is a retired businessman who has always believed in the power of a handwritten letter. When Justin was in middle school, his father gave him a box of personalized note cards to encourage his son to start writing.

“I’m a believer that handwritten notes are kind of a lost art in this day of social media. We need to keep it alive,” Steve Smith said. “It sends a message to the receiver and to the writer that you stopped what you were doing and totally focused on that person for a few minutes.”

You might write something in a letter that you would be reluctant to say verbally, he said. In his letters to Justin, his pride is evident.

Concern and love

Steve Smith believes no form of digital communication has the same one-on-one power as a note or letter. Email, he said, is for conveying facts; notes, written with his trusty Parker Duofold pen, are for conveying emotion. “It’s a signal of effort,” he said, “that for me equates to concern and love.”

Steve Smith saved letters his father wrote him. Justin Smith has saved letters his dad wrote him.

So did I. I have a thick folder full of letters my father wrote me, which started when I was in college in 1980 and continued for more than two decades.

In my 20s, my father often gave career advice, including balancing work with personal life. In my 30s, when my wife and I had three daughters, my father often wrote about his granddaughters.

Another side

He was certain they were the smartest, most beautiful granddaughters ever. At one point, he was rooting for me to have a son. “Today,” he wrote, “I don’t even think about that.”

My father, born in the 1930s, was Old School in person, often formal and self conscious about expressing emotion to his children.

But in his long letters he was warm and effusive, revealing another side. Several times he closed with, “Thank you for being our son.” He always ended, “Love, Dad.”

My father’s gone now. But as I re-read these old letters in his slanted, jagged handwriting, the years roll past page by page. I can hear his voice, supportive and reassuring, as if he were in the room with me.

It’s a good voice.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or; Twitter: @john_drescher