Santa is special for Mountain Home family, descendents of the famous 'Virginia' letter writer

Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Mary Blair, granddaughter of Virginia O'Hanlon, her son, Michael, and his daughter, Mehren, shown with a book about the famous "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" editorial.

"Twas the Night Before Christmas," "A Christmas Carol," "The Nutcracker," are all stories that are true classics.

But for Mary, Michael and Mehren Blair of Mountain Home, one story remains true over all the others, "Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus," written in response to Mary Blair's grandmother, then 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, to the editorial staff at the New York Sun. Francis P. Church, an editorial writer for the newspaper, answered Virginia's question on Sept. 20, 1897, his response becoming the most widely reproduced editorial in U.S. history.

O'Hanlon was an only child, the daughter of Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, a relatively prosperous physician and coroner's assistant.

Many years after her famous letter and Church's reply, she married and had one daughter Laura Virginia. Mary Blair was the third of Laura Virginia's eight children. Michael, the great-grandson of O'Hanlon, is a pilot assigned to the 391st Fighter Squadron on base.

Their famous grandmother, O'Hanlon, who later became a school teacher, grew up on 115 W. 95th Street in New York City, "a nice place in a nice neighborhood" on the upper west side of Manhattan.

As the years went by, the building became run down, to the point where the entire building was boarded up. The building was later sold to a private school, and as of the present day, her home is now a school called, "The Studio."

"I feel like that's completing a circle for my grandmother," said Mary Blair.

O'Hanlon graduated from Hunter College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1910. She received her Master's degree from Columbia in 1911.

In 1912, she began a 47-year career as a teacher in New York City and later became a school principal. In her later years she became an administrator for hospitalized and chronically ill children.

O'Hanlon retired in 1959 and moved to North Chatham, N.Y. to live with Mary and her family. North Chatham was a small farming community 20 miles southeast of Albany.

O'Hanlon always came to North Chatham for Christmas, Easter and Summer vacations. She stayed with the family until she was sent to a nursing home in Valatie, N.Y., where, at the age of 81, she died on May 13, 1971.

In 1972, Postmaster General E.T. Klassen, with Virginia's first great-granddaughter Barbara Ann Lee present, issued a Christmas stamp in Virginia's honor.

Mary Blair, the granddaughter of Virginia O' Hanlon, has two sisters named Laura and Virginia. The name has appeared in every generation.

Blair previously worked as a skiing facilitator at White Face Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y.. Blair's husband Jerry was a retired teacher, principal and superintendant of schools, now works as a lift operator at White Face Mountain.

Michael has been in Mountain Home since June of 2006, having previously been stationed in England. Michael lives with his wife, Elizabeth, a teacher at Bruneau/Grand View, and daughter Mehren, O'Hanlon's great-great-granddaughter. Mehren was Elizabeth's mother's paternal grandmother's maiden name.

Michael and his wife both grew up in North Chatham and were childhood friends at the time. In fact Elizabeth's family lived next door to Mary's family.

Unfortunately, Michael had no memory of O'Hanlon, but Mary described O'Hanlon as a "very soft spoken, very dignified and gentle woman."

According to Mary, O'Hanlon's clothing style included high heels, a dress, jewelry, a hat with a net and white gloves, "This is what she would wear just to check the mail," said Mary.

To Mary, O'Hanlon was one who had the gift of telling stories. She would often take two lace trimmed handkerchiefs, and create the characters for her stories of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina.

The attention received by the story Church wrote in response to her childhood letter was on a grand scale, it was published in 700 papers, and eventually broadcast on 25 radio stations and 50 television stations.

Jerry recalled a time when radio disc jockeys from Wyoming and Oklahoma would call at 1 a.m. wanting to talk with Virginia.

O'Hanlon never understood why the focus of attention was put toward her and not the editorial writer, Church. The New York Sun never revealed Church's name until after his death, because at that time the paper's editorial writers were not named with specific pieces.

When the television era began O'Hanlon did countless interviews with local TV stations and appeared on the Perry Como show. Chet Huntley, anchorman for NBC news, read the editorial response on the air.

When the story was read, O'Hanlon felt pleased that it was read in its entirety. It was a rarity, because the media would usually never read an entire story, only excerpts.

Michael was an avid fan of the holiday season. "I was so into Christmas as a kid, I even walked up to Santa (who lived in the actual town of North Pole in Wilmington, N.Y.) and asked if I could be an elf."

Mary recalled a time at a Howard Johnson's that she and Michael saw Santa in a summer suit, Michael went up to Mrs. Claus and asked how he could be an elf, and she said he had to fill certain requirements -- he had to be married and be loyal to Santa Claus. After a letter was written to Santa by Mary insisting that he grant Michael's wish to be an elf, Santa sent an unofficial letter back saying that he could be an elf.

Michael's favorite passage in Church's story is: "Your little friends have been affected by the skepticism, of a skeptical age." He remembers how he would always argue with his friends about the existence of Santa and use O'Hanlon's story has proof.

Mary's favorite passage in the story is: "If you take a baby rattle, tear it apart, to see what makes the noise. You're really not looking at the reality of the rattle, which is a veil covering an unseen world," because that depicts child-like faith. "...The most real things in the world are things you can't see, feel or touch."

Mary always knew there was something special about Virginia.

"We as a family were gifted to have Virginia has a grandmother, because the story will always be a part of our family."

On what the story means to her, Mary replied, "it embodies the spirit of Christmas, the true spirit of sharing, being generous, having faith and love, it to me the embodiment of what Christmas is."

"Yes Virginia," will be featured on the cover of the Dec. 23 issue this year of USA Today Weekend magazine.

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