I think it is fair to say that Will was a cantankerous old man. I first began writing to him in the fall of 2000, and he wrote back soon thereafter. In that first letter he recounted briefly his early affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and recalled how busy church service had kept his mother and his wife. He did not explain his inactivity right off, only commenting that “being a Mormon then, as well as now, is not easy.” Then he closed with the following:
“I have no idea whether or not you are the only one using this ‘Letter’ method of ‘Visiting,’ but allow me to comment: I believe it’s a master stroke. . . . A letter, not a card, in my opinion, is far more effective because it’s very personal and can be read at the most convenient time for the recipient. Not to mention the fact that it’s much cheaper than making a call in a car.
“Please write again when you find time.”
Since I wrote to many others who never responded, I was of course delighted to hear from Will. His letter encouraged me to believe that my efforts might bear some fruit some day—or at least that they had the chance to do some good. So you may understand my disappointment just two weeks later when I received another letter from Will that included the following: “You have a marvelous gift of wit and prose for your Bible Storytelling and I wish you well. But I am afraid I have no interest, and no desire for you to waste your time.”
I was crushed. But since he had been so encouraging just a few days prior, my wife convinced me to disregard his request and write to him again. And it’s a good thing I did. For over the course of the months that followed, Will and I became regular correspondents, pen pals of a sort. Each month I would write to Will, and each month (or so) he would mail back his counter-arguments and justifications for his contrary beliefs. Sometimes he supplemented his notes with political commentary, but even in the midst of his occasional rants, it was clear that he enjoyed the exchange of ideas. He often closed his letters with a tender expression of admiration: “Peter, I believe your faith is unshakable. . . . I hope you are right and that I’m just a cynical old man that is not smart enough to have faith and no desire to change. I am content.”
After a couple of years of trading letters, Will stopped writing, but since his letters came somewhat irregularly, it took me several months to notice. Concerned, I decided to violate my promise not to impose myself on him and drove by his house. I was greeted rather abruptly by his son who informed me that Will had suffered a heart attack and was in no condition to receive visitors. I explained that I was a friend of Will’s and asked the son to please convey my regards, but I confess that his reaction was not encouraging. A few months later, I visited his house once more and was told that Will had passed away.
It saddens me to this day that Will and I never formally met. (I often suggested a rendezvous but he never accepted my invitation.) It makes me sadder still that I was unable to lend love and support to his family during the days following his death. Even so, my correspondence with Will in the early days of my letter-writing experiment has encouraged me to this day. There are others with whom I carry on a regular exchange of notes and emails—Tamara, Trudy, Donald—but Will was the first with whom I really connected. He inspired me, challenged me, compelled me to approach my task thoughtfully and prayerfully. So it is that to this day, several years since his death, I feel as though every letter I write is a letter to Will.