Write Someone a Letter And Say, 'Thank You'

A phone call won't do, say supporters of 'Appreciation Week' in an Illinois county

"Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people," wrote English philosopher Samuel Johnson in 1773.

That speaks well of McHenry County, Ill. The quiet, rustic community is the birthplace of "National Write a Letter of Appreciation Week," to be held March 1-7.

Last year for the first time, schoolchildren and other thoughtful McHenry people sent a seven-day flurry of unexpected "thank-you" notes to everyone from grandparents to the local mailman.

The response was enthusiastic. Grandmothers burst into tears of joy. Phone calls and letters poured in. Local reporters wrote columns. McHenry Mayor Steve Cuda proclaimed the week official.

Even Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R) lauded the idea.

"The spirit of kindness that often defines McHenry County will be spread nationwide," Governor Edgar declared.

McHenry residents are hopeful: This year schools, hospitals, and churches around the country are promoting the week of gratitude.

The idea behind letter of appreciation week is simple: to encourage everyone to take a few minutes to write a note thanking someone who has gone out of his or her way to be kind or helpful. A child could write a letter to a favorite aunt, neighbor, or bus driver. An adult could write to an old high school teacher or a store clerk or police officer.

"It could help a lot of people feel better about themselves," says McHenry businessman Larry McManus, the chief supporter of the idea. "I thought of the slogan 'spin good' because if I write a letter, maybe the person who receives it will write to someone else, and so you'll get all these letters spinning around."

Small affirmations of goodwill have great meaning in today's jaded world, Mr. McManus posits.

"Our culture has sort of a gritty, coarse feeling," he says. "You pick up the newspaper, or turn on the radio in your car, and you would think there are just not good people out there - but there are."

A personal, hand-written letter of thanks also has the homey appeal of a keepsake in a culture awash with e-mail and answering machines, supporters say. It is all the more special if it arrives unexpectedly in response not to a gift but to a kind act that might otherwise be taken for granted.

"It's just so much easier to call people up for a quick 'Thanks' that is not really thought about," says Mary Ann Kahl, principal of a Hebron, Ill., elementary school where 250 students plan to put pen to paper this week. She says many children today are so inundated with material things, and parents are so busy and overworked, that thank-you notes are no longer routine.

This year, students in Susan Dowiat's third-grade class in Cary, Ill., are writing to everyone from parents and grandparents to basketball star Michael Jordan and President Clinton.

"One boy wrote to his mom, thanking her for life," says Ms. Dowiat.

Last year, Dowiat wrote to thank her own kindergarten teacher for inspiring her to teach. The response was moving. "She said of the 1,000 kids she's taught, only a dozen have gotten a hold of her," Dowiat says.

In 1798, poet William Wordsworth wrote of "that portion of a good man's life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love." If the people of McHenry have their way, perhaps more of those acts will prompt at least a thank you.

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