Nearly 70 years later, love letters surface

CHAMPAIGN – It was 1938, and Joe Nipoti was in love.

His new bride, Geraldine Stogdell, lived 50 miles away in Champaign, but it felt so far. "It's the 18th, darling. 10 months of married life has made me love my darling wife more and more as time passes," he wrote in October of that year.

Less than two months later, he wrote again to "Dearest Jerry" in neat, trim script. He wrote of a new suit to buy, a friend's wedding and, mostly, of how happy he was to be married to "the best choice on the entire lot."

"All my love, Joe," he closed with.

But his Jerry never got those letters.

Some time later, Joe died. Geraldine remarried. She would be about 90 now.

And while she moved to California, two pieces of her history turned up in Champaign on Sunday morning. Postal worker Robert White could scarcely believe his eyes.

There he was, hand-sorting some mail, when what should he spot but a letter with a three-cent stamp on it.

Then he noticed something that really got his attention: The letter was postmarked Dec. 18, 1938.

"About five letters later, I found another one that looked the same way, going from the same person to the same person, and it was dated Oct. 27, 1938," said White, a mail processor at the Mattis Avenue post office.

"Here's two letters mailed two months apart that, for 70 years, have been in limbo," he said.

Even stranger, White marveled: How in the world did those two letters, sent 45 days apart, become matched up and remain together all those years to wind up together in Champaign?

"It's possible a letter gets put in a case or a drawer and gets overlooked for years," he said. "But we're talking about two separate letters."

And talk about snail mail: White figures those letters, originally mailed from Auburn, in Sangamon County, traveled about a mile a year.

But never let it be said that the mail doesn't eventually get through.

On Thursday afternoon, Champaign Postmaster Morrie Smith delivered the letters in person to the Joseph Kuhn & Co. store in downtown Champaign, where the letters had been sent in care of Geraldine Stogdell.

"Here is your mail, special delivery," Smith told Kuhn's store manager Gordon Tracey. "I'm wondering if it's a love letter."

Because the letters were in care of Kuhn's, Tracey could legally open them. He did so gingerly, respectful of their age.

In his 20-plus years in the postal service, Smith said he'd never seen a letter delivered so late. "We don't know ... where and what occurred during the last 70 years," he said. "I have no explanation."

White said the two letters he found were in perfect condition, but "mustard yellow with age."

To the touch, the paper is thick, the handwritten words undamaged by time. In one letter, Joe Nipoti fills the page, then scribbles along the margins an apology for sending the letter a little late. "I do so want you to get your Monday letter," he wrote.

What would she have felt when the two letters never arrived?

At the post office on Sunday, White's supervisor entered bar codes from the back of each letter and learned they had made their way through automatic processing equipment in Michigan just a few days before turning up in Champaign.

Some employees might have figured their job was done at that point. White, a genealogist by hobby, felt differently. He saw the mystery.

He went home and started looking for the sender and the recipient in the Social Security death index, an online database of death records. Then he tracked down relatives of the recipient and learned that Geraldine Stogdell had been a student at the University of Illinois and working at Kuhn's.

The University of Illinois Alumni Association has no graduation listing of either Stogdell or Nipoti.

White found a distant relative of hers and learned bits about her life.

At Kuhn's, Tracey said if Geraldine or any of her family wanted the letters, he would send them. Otherwise, they would become two more documents of the long history of the business. Tracey said he looked up old photographs and found one from 1939, but he could not find Geraldine Stogdell, or Geraldine Nipoti.

White keeps hoping he'll be able to reach her, and calling potential leads.

He'd like to see her have that letter, so long late, from a husband who once wrote to her, "You are the only reason I ever want this world to keep turning."

Perhaps sometime, rather sooner than later, his "Jerry" will be reminded of that.

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