On Saturday morning, I pulled from a file drawer an overstuffed, large, brown envelope labeled “Harper Lee Letters” and “Washington High School.”
My correspondence with the Pulitzer-prize winning author started in May 1997. Bob Cooley in Clinton, Mo., had shared with Harper a copy of an April 29, 1997, column I had done involving her book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I wrote it during a four-year project I’d begun in 1995, studying with the Class of 1999 at Washington High in Kansas City, Kan., to learn what it was like to be a teen and teacher. Cooley shared Harper’s handwritten May 13, 1997, response: “Mr. Diuguid’s column moved me beyond words, and I’d like to write to him and tell him so. The Kansas City Star used to be a jewel among newspapers — I haven’t seen it in more than 30 years, but its columnists certainly seem to maintain its reputation!”
Against friends’ protests of Harper being an exceedingly private person, I wrote her back, and over the years we’ve maintained an almost 19th century bond, having never met but being thrilled with each letter we receive from the other. Harper replied in a Sept. 3, 1997, letter, “thank you so very much for the articles and send me more!”
She added that cautions about her privacy were “right on target,” but “there are invasions that I’ll overlook: damn fine writing always gets me out of my bat-cave!”
I mailed to Harper more than 100 columns I did on the Class of 1999 when the teens were in high school and as they progressed through college, adult relationships and challenges. We’ve exchanged holiday greetings, and every year I’ve sent her a card for her April 28 birthday. She would’ve been 90 this year, but my longtime friend died Friday in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala.
Wouldn’t you know it was during Black History Month? Harper’s ground-breaking book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960 and made into an Oscar-winning film was required reading for many students in high school, including me. The book opened readers’ eyes to the bigotry blacks face.
The novel was especially riveting because it was told from the perspective of a white girl, Scout, growing up in a Depression-era Southern town. Harper and I almost never discussed her book but shared the goings-on in our lives.
That included her travels between New York and Monroeville and how sometimes it took weeks for letters I sent to her in Alabama to catch up to her in New York. She was a good mentor, too, offering encouragement about my work at The Star and in the community.
We openly shared with each other how strong our friendship had grown and what a blessing it was. She wrote in a Dec. 18, 2004, card, “the love expressed will last me for the rest of my life, and I’ll see by its light.”
I wrote to her about my dad and two daughters. She cheered knowing that Dad had recovered from the 2006 assault he suffered at his company and that each daughter had graduated from college and had successful careers in different cities. I also sent photographs to her of a huge “To Kill a Mockingbird” book along with other U.S. classics on 10th Street near the downtown library. That thrilled her. “The pictures are marvelous,” she wrote. The book “looming big over the street…” “looks like a part of ‘our’ Kansas City!” she said in a Feb. 23, 2009, letter.
She also shared distressing news about her declining health. Macular degeneration eroded her eyesight. She continued to send letters, apologizing for her penmanship. One dated Aug. 9, 2007, told of a paralysis to her left side, being hospitalized in New York and receiving rehab in Birmingham. But she soldiered on. I was surprised by the release of “Go Set a Watchman” in 2015.
Harper was a jewel of a friend, and I will miss her.