Letter Returned

From the Producer, Wyatt Doremus: Russell Smith's letters

When you begin your research you never know where it will lead....

Someone (probably Russell's sister but we're not 100% sure) in the Smith family was a resident of the state hospital at Willard and had in their possession letters sent by Russell Smith to his dad and soon to be stepmom in Geneva. When the hospital was closed down, an administrator there wanted the letters to have a good home and gave them to the Rochester City Historian, Ruth Rosenberg Naparsteck. When I asked Ruth what collections of war letters might be available in the files over at Local History, she mentioned the Smith letters as a possibility.

The more I read Russell's letters, the more I grew to like the man who wrote them. He was alternately serious and wryly funny, sober and clear thinking. Where possible in this project, we wanted someone with an emotional connection to the letters to read them. I wanted to find someone from the Smith family but given that last name, the task looked to be at best difficult.

The people at the Finger Lakes Times and the Daily Messenger were kind enough to put a letter to the editor from me in their newspapers and on-line editions. A day later, we got at least a half dozen calls saying that they probably knew the family, culminating in a call from Russell's daughter in law who wanted to know why we wanted him. After all, we had just missed him moving from his home near Ovid down to Okechobee for the winter.

Amazed that Russell was still alive (given the circumstances of the donation of the letters, it was natural to assume the worst), we then contacted him directly. He turned out to be just as nice as the young man who wrote the letters all those years ago and agreed instantly to travel 40 minutes to the PBS station nearest to him. The people at WQCS-FM proved to be equally equable, agreeing instantly to not only record Mr. Smith but to handle all the arrangements within the week.

Hear Russell Smith read one of his own letters.


The postscript to the story is that Russell Smith's letters had never been seen by members of his direct family. His daughter, Sande, told me by email and in person that her dad never really talked about what he had seen and done during the war. The letters gave her and the rest of the family an insight Russell might never have felt comfortable enough to provide. Those letters, thanks to the city historian, are now back in the family's possession and are being properly preserved.

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