In his final column of the year in 1993, then-News-Times columnist Aubrey Shaw introduced readers to Hannah Heimer.
Hannah had been born a few days earlier, on Dec. 15, 1993. The happenstance of her birth provided an opportunity for Shaw to write his column as if it were a letter to a future Hannah.
"According to my mom, I think he wanted to address his 'words of wisdom' to a new little person who had just come into our 'terrible, unjust and corrupt world,'" says Kim Ball, Shaw's daughter.
That "new little person," now a sophomore in a Virginia high school, turned 16 in December. For her birthday, she received a letter from her grandmother that included the clipping of Shaw's column, titled "An open letter to my new friend."
Though the words had been directed to Hannah, this was the first time she had read them. She was touched by Shaw's advice to live with a positive attitude, delivered while she was still a newborn, and she immediately sat down and wrote a letter in response to tell Shaw how much she appreciated his column.
She didn't know that Shaw had died in 1998. But she soon found out his family couldn't have been more thrilled at hearing that his words continue to reach others long after his departure.
"How cool is it that my dad is still making an impact today on someone who never even really knew him?" Ball asks. "It makes me so proud - and I know Dad would be tickled pink about it!"
Ball's mother, Madge Shaw, says Hannah's family attended First Baptist Church of Evans while they lived in the area before relocating to Virginia. That's where Aubrey picked up the infant's name as a vehicle for his message of hope.
"Hannah, some people will take perverse pleasure in telling you what a terrible, unjust and corrupt world you have just entered - and they will gleefully provide graphic details to support their pessimistic view," Shaw wrote in the column 16 years ago.
"I, however, contend that you have entered a world of kind, loving people who are working hard to make life for your generation just a little better than it was for the generations that preceded you," Shaw wrote.
He then shared his vision of optimism, including an anecdote from his "country preacher" father that reflected how our own outlook often determines what our world is like.
"Welcome to God's world, Hannah," he concluded. "Your life will be just about as happy as you decide to make it."
And it has been a happy life, Hannah says. In her letter to Shaw, she expresses her excitement at receiving Shaw's column and in learning that her positive outlook is exactly what Shaw had prescribed.
"I have luckily grown up in a wonderful environment and have always been told to look on the optimistic side of situations and look for the greatest qualities in everyone," her letter to Shaw says. "But the way the letter addressed this concept was so moving to me.
"You, Aubrey, have inspired me to be better than I already am, to never give up and simply strive to be accepting of others."
In subsequent correspondence with Hannah, I've found she's every bit as delightful as her letter to Shaw. She describes how she first received the copy of his column.
"It was on my 16th birthday that my grandmother stumbled upon the letter and thought it would be a perfect gift to give me," Hannah writes.
"My grandmother probably did not know Aubrey much, but my mother and father remember him very well," she writes. "My mother and father are now divorced, but they both only remember wonderful things about him. Their first response was, 'that was one great man.'"
Indeed he was. The fact that his words live on to inspire a young woman hundreds of miles away, nearly a dozen years after his death, are just another testament to that greatness.
Happy birthday, Hannah. And we miss you, Aubrey.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail email@example.com. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)
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