In blue-ink cursive, they’re addressed to Miss Jan Nagle in Chicago. A U.S. Navy seal marks the year 1944.
Inside, a letter is signed, “love and kisses, Laury.”
Written by Clark’s late father-in-law, Laurence John Bassuk — a sailor in the U.S. Navy stationed in Panama during World War II — the letters are the only handwritten notes her husband, Lawrence Bassuk, has of his father’s. His mother gave him the letters after his father died.
“They’re just human,” Bassuk said. “I knew my dad. So when I read those letters, I’m thinking about here’s a young guy, just finding life, just finding a girl to marry.”
In a culture of text messages and email, the letters are the foundation for Clark’s case for the handwritten note. A humanities professor at Collin College, she recently was named its Lebrecht Endowed Chair for Scholarly and Civic Engagement.
Now, she’s working to create an exhibit and documentary about letter writing in the digital age that will debut in January 2017 at THE ARTS gallery on the college’s Spring Creek campus. It will be open to students and the community.
After that, she hopes to take the mobile exhibit to other locations around Dallas.
“I want people to pause and think about letter writing as this wonderful connection to our humanity. That we’re made to create, and we need to do it artfully, and we need to do it with thought, love and depth,” said Clark, a Richardson resident. “We don’t need to just spin off a text and Facebook postings all the time without thinking about it.”
But she’s quick to point out the exhibit isn’t a jab at technology. She owns an iPhone, iPad and laptop. She teaches two online courses at Collin College.
The exhibit is still evolving, but ideas include screening movies and playing music with letter themes, displaying student and community art pieces and hosting dramatic readings.
Clark also is working to find people in the community with interesting stories about letters for the documentary.
The project is taken from a chapter in her more than 250-page dissertation on letter writing completed in 2012 at the University of Texas at Dallas.
In the dissertation, she makes the case for handwritten letters as art, noting the craft of penmanship and a letter’s ability — like a painting — to make someone feel something.
“In a world where we’re consumed by the practical, even in our message sending, it’s really important to stop and realize that life is about more than practical matters. It’s about creating beauty. It’s about expressing affection,” said Dennis Kratz, dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas and the co-chairman for Clark’s dissertation. “… Letters remind us of the importance of deeper conversations.”
In Clark’s home office, you’ll find examples of letters in every corner. Posters for movies such as P.S. I Love You and 1999’s The Love Letter are framed on the wall. Nearby, records such as Elvis Presley’s Love Letters are on display, too. Some she found at antique stores and estate sales, others online. Still wrapped in plastic is a 1960s album titled Music to Write Letters By. Inside, it includes scented paper.
Hanging above the window is a large sign that reads “the letter as art.” Clark had it made for her dissertation.
“I wanted my professors to know how serious I was about this,” she said.
She flips open an archival binder. Letters so old they’ve yellowed have been placed in the plastic sleeves. Dating to the late 1800s, they’re written between members of Bassuk’s family in Ireland and the U.S. Some have a “N” emblem on the top of the paper. Another edged in black tells about the death of a little boy.
Later, Bassuk flips to a back page, showing a letter in flowery cursive from his great, great grandfather in Ireland, John O’Hara, to his great grandfather in the U.S., James Nagle. In it, O’Hara gives Nagle his permission to marry his daughter, Alice.
On yellow-lined paper, Bassuk transcribed the engagement letter.
It begins: My dear James, yours of the third to hand. So I see you have been doing a stroke of business while you were in the old country. And now you want a chip off the old block from me, though you arranged the important part with Alice. You now modestly ask me for her hand. If you get her hand, you will have to take her body and bones, boots and all for better and worse. Amen. So let it be.
“That’s what I come from, and that’s incredible. What an eloquent man,” Bassuk said after he read aloud the letter. “… We’re all characters, every one of us.”
Bassuk looked back to the letters from his father. There’s more in a box in the office. A few hang framed on the wall.
In one, his father writes to his mother asking her to send photos of her Easter outfit. He calls her “honey.” He tells her goodnight and to “be good.”
In another, he apologizes for the short note. He tells her he loves her more than he can say.
Again, he signs it “love and kisses, Laury.”
Neighborsgo reporter Nanette Light can be reached at 214-977-8039.