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A treasure trove of family letters once lost has now been returned

Sat 08 Jan 2022    
Vismay Anand | 5 min read

Losing something while travelling is quite a nightmare especially when it is checked in with the airlines. For Rachel DeGolia, this came true when her irreplaceable collection of family letters from the 1940s to 1970s was left on a plane as it pulled into Chicago Midway Airport.

The tragedy turned to relief — even triumph after a three-week search, one airline representative reunited DeGolia with the letters.

This discovery had made Rachel DeGolia’s summer. Her mother passed of cancer in 1996, and in the summer of 2021, her cousin found a collection of letters sent by a young Lois to her brother, Phil, who’d kept them all over the years.

The letters, dating back to 1947, recounted her life — first as a frustrated teenager in small-town Lansing, Iowa, then going to college in Chicago, and meeting the man who would become her husband.

“There were all these questions we’d have wanted to ask her, but she died within four months of her diagnosis. This felt like a gift — a window into her young adulthood. And to lose it…” she pauses. “I felt so stupid to have not at least copied them,” said DeGolia.

Her cousin had sent them to her in batches as he went through them in the summer, and DeGolia took them with her. 

In all the excitement, she didn’t make copies of them before the trip. Her brother also overexcited took the precious cargo home, making sure to keep it with him in the cabin, but sadly left them behind when he got off his flight home to Chicago.

“He was going to scan them when he got home, so he took them on the plane, put them on the floor and they were somehow kicked under his seat,” said DeGolia.

“He didn’t notice they were gone for a few hours. He didn’t even get to read them,” she added.

The letter was from Lois Anne Schafer to her brother, Phil who had gone to college at the young age of 16.

DeGolia is keen to emphasize that Lois loved the town till the end of her life, as have her kids — “We kept the house in the family where she and our uncle grew up and spend many delightful vacations there” — but as a teenager, her mother felt differently.

“She was writing about how bored she was, and how unchallenged she was in high school. She was frustrated with the social life in Lansing, writing to my uncle how much she missed him. She was chomping at the bit to get out of town,” said DeGolia.

In fact, she managed it. Her brother had found it hard to adjust going from a tiny town to college — Harvard — at such a young age, so Lois spent her last year of high school living with her aunt in Milwaukee, to ease the transition into college life.

She continued writing to her brother as she moved to Chicago, where her world changed as she started her studies in social sciences, ending up specializing in urban planning.

“It opened up all kinds of horizons for her,” said DeGolia.

“She did graduate school there, she met my father, and they got married there and stayed in Chicago.

“So she wrote [to Phil] about what she was thinking and learning, music, concerts philosophical things she knew my uncle would engage with her on. Although I gather he didn’t write back as often as she’d like — she was always complaining about that,” said DeGolia.

Uncle Phil may not have been good at replying, but he was excellent at preserving their family history. A “pack rat” as DeGolia calls him, he kept every letter his sister sent him.

And as she continued to write through marriage, kids, and taking care of her ageing parents, who she lived near to, he kept all her letters — providing a record of her life.

In 2021, DeGolia received that whole history of her mother’s life, and her late parents’ first meeting, when her cousin found the letters. A history that could have been erased had the letters been thrown away on the plane.

It was a Southwest flight from New York to Chicago Midway that had taken DeGolia’s brother home after the wedding party.

After the passengers deplaned, the crew found the folder during their post-flight checks, realised the letters were precious and handed the folder over to a gate agent, where it was placed in a safe.

In fact, Haffner — a Baggage Service Office supervisor for Southwest at Midway — had been off work for a week when the folder was brought to her office, but her coworkers hadn’t wanted to send the letters to the depot, because they seemed so very precious.

“I came back and they were on the top shelf of our high value safe. ​I looked at them, but it had one of my manager’s names on it, with a note saying to hold on to it. So I left it there, thinking they knew who the owners were,” said Haffner.

In fact, the other staff had given up on finding the owner, having drawn successive blanks, and not having had anyone contact them direct about the letters.

DeGolia said her brother had been leaving messages with Southwest centrally — but somehow the messages had never reached the right people.

A week after her return — two weeks after the letters were lost — Haffner’s manager told her that they were at a loss.

“They said, ‘We’ve had no luck, so if you want to take a peek, do — if not we’ll have to send it to Lost and Found. That’s a huge warehouse of lost items in Dallas. It’s very well organized, as well as we can do it, but it’s huge. I didn’t want to send it there once I’d looked inside the envelope,” she said.

Because as soon as she looked, Haffner had realized this was an item that needed to find its owner.

“There were about 40 handwritten letters, really aged and brown, dating from the 1940s, between family members. I pulled out one and read the whole letter. I realized these were people who were probably no longer here. It was stuff about relationships and family drama — it was very personal,” she said.

In fact, it was so personal that she stopped reading. “I only read the top letter because I felt like I was impeding their privacy. It was super private. I was trying not to read it,” she said.

Normally, the procedure for reuniting items with their owners is fairly simple. Non-valuables are shipped straight to the Dallas warehouse and entered into the inventory there, while high-value items get a 24-hour grace period at the airport at which they are found. Agents like Haffner look for any identification on the item and then match the name to a passenger booking.

After a week of running search after search, Haffner went in a different direction. She decided to abandon the Southwest database — and turned to Google.

And there she found details of a Rachel DeGolia from Ohio.

“I was like, what are the chances — it’s got to be her,” she said. She managed to track down a phone number.

“At 9 p.m. one night I got this cal. She said she was Sarah from Southwest, and I stopped her — I said, ‘Did you find the letters?’ I couldn’t believe it, it was amazing,” said DeGolia. 

Haffner, for her part, had “goosebumps.”

Normally, Southwest customers must pay the shipping fee to be reunited with their lost baggage. But this time, Haffner offered to pay for a taxi to get them back to the family. DeGolia didn’t even trust that, anymore She said she was Sarah from Southwest, and I stopped her — I said, ‘Did you find the letters?’ I couldn’t believe it, it was amazing. she sent her sister-in-law straight to the airport to pick them up, although by that point Haffner had gone home.

“Rachel wrote me a letter She said she was Sarah from Southwest, and I stopped her — I said, ‘Did you find the letters?’ I couldn’t believe it, it was amazing. an old school note, mailed to Midway,” she said.

DeGolia, calledHaffner a “wonderful young woman” for saving this “snapshot of what [my mother was like] growing up.” A long-time Southwest passenger — “We’ve been flying since the airline opened, because our childhood home was 10 minutes from Midway” — she’s delighted her loyalty has been repaid.

Meanwhile, she and her family are discovering still more letters. “My family were prolific letter writers, and I have boxes that my grandmother wrote. And I think my mother kept every letter my grandmother sent her, and she wrote her almost every day for years and years,” said DeGolia. 

Although she’s careful to add, “I can assure you they’ve been scanned, now.”

Source: Agencies

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