A Notre Dame College alumna has received a letter her father wrote to her while she was a student at the College, 73 years after he sent it.
The letter postmarked April 29, 1947, to Elizabeth “Betty” Jane Gerhart Smith, a 1949 alumna of Notre Dame who is now 92 years old, re-entered the mail stream and finally was delivered to the College campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Administrators at Notre Dame embarked on a search and made sure Smith received the letter.
“I was shocked. … It’s fantastic. I’m just thrilled to death. Everybody is,” Smith said. “I never even thought about it because it was so long ago. We’ve moved. I got married, and we’ve moved. I never dreamed that we would be interviewed about a letter he wrote to me.”
Because of COVID-19, Karen Poelking, vice president of board and community relations at the College who was provided the letter, could not visit Smith in person. Poelking sent a letter of her own to Smith via the U.S. Post Office instead of delivering the more than 70-year-old missive by hand. In her message, Poelking explained how the 1947 letter came to be in the College’s possession and how Notre Dame discovered Smith was the intended recipient.
Smith and her family were touched by the letter and the College’s efforts to reach the recipient, so much so that they reached out to the local ABC affiliate to share the story.
“During this time of social distancing, the elderly and those living in assisted living or nursing homes have been shuttered away from friends and family. This letter was a boost for her,” said Lucy Hokes, Smith’s niece, in a message to WEWS, Cleveland NewsNet 5. View the complete story on the ABC affiliate NEWS 5 Cleveland.
Care, Concern, Love
The missive that arrived at Notre Dame in 2020 was packaged as damaged mail.
“I looked at the envelope back and forth, trying to get any other identifier. I did the math. The first thing I did in my head, ‘My God, this letter is 73 years old. Where has it been? Where has it been?'” said Karen Poelking, vice president of board and community relations at the College. “This was written in 1947. … Then, when I read it, it was just so touching.”
Poelking said she was hesitant to open the letter but knew she had to read it in order to learn about the author and intended recipient. The letter was addressed to Betty Jane Gerhart, Notre Dame College. No residence hall or room number was listed.
“Care, concern, love. It all came through in this letter. It was very sweet. It took me back to my own days in college, getting mail from my folks,” Poelking said.
Alumna, Family, Memory
Staff at Notre Dame searched the College’s enrollment records and found an entry for Smith. Unfortunately, the last known address on file was more than 20 years old. The Notre Dame alumna completed her undergraduate degree in chemistry at the College and went on to earn a law degree.
“Thank God for the internet,” Poelking said. “I just googled: ‘Elizabeth Jane Gerhart Smith.’ What came up, sad to say, was Victor’s obituary, who was her husband.”
Victor Frances Smith of Sandusky died in July 2018 at the age of 93. The obituary said he was survived by his wife, Betty, and that Victor Smith worked at Sandusky Electric Inc., which also employed Betty’s Smith’s father. The letter to her from her father, Joseph Gerhart, was written on Sandusky Electric letterhead.
Poelking employed the internet again and discovered that one Betty Smith in Ohio resided at the Parkvue Senior Living Community in Sandusky. After a phone call, Poelking learned that Betty Smith was still a resident there and addressed her new letter and sent the old to the alumna there.
“It’s a great memory. It’s a keepsake. It’s something they can hold onto. That’s important,” Poelking said. “I know I would value it. It would mean the world to me. If it meant something to her, that’s all that matters to me. That’s the important thing.”
Letters, Major, More
According to Betty Smith, her father would write her letters while she was a student at Notre Dame on occasion. She said her father’s cursive penmanship was well-known throughout the family.
In the hand-written letter to her, Smith’s father provided an update on construction of his new workshop and mentioned that twin children in the family were preparing to start school.
Smith’s father Joseph and his wife, Jane, had 44 grandchildren. The 4 -year-olds he mentions in his letter to Smith now are 77, according to the alumna.
Her father suggested Smith consider x-ray technician as a major but recommended she talk to her professors, the Sisters of Notre Dame first. He also wrote that he would visit her soon on a trip to Cleveland and that he was sending her some money for her to spend as she wished.
“Letters mean more to me than any amount of money, that’s for sure,” Smith said.
About Notre Dame College
For almost a century, Notre Dame College has educated a diverse population in the liberal arts for personal, professional and global responsibility. Founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1922, the College has grown strategically to keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of students and the dramatic changes in higher education. But it has never lost sight of its emphasis on teaching students not only how to make a good living but also how to live a good life.
Today, the College offers bachelor’s degrees in 30 disciplines plus a variety of master’s degrees, certification programs and continuing and professional development programs for adult learners on campus and online. Notre Dame College offers NCAA Division II intercollegiate athletic programs for men and women and is located in a picturesque residential neighborhood just 25 minutes from the heart of Cleveland. Hallmarks of the Notre Dame experience include stimulating academics, personalized attention of dedicated faculty and staff, and small class sizes.
Notre Dame College is located at 4545 College Road in South Euclid. For further information contact Brian Johnston, chief communications officer, at 216.373.5252 or email@example.com.