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COLUMN ONE

Learning to Write Their Love

Men in church workshops express themselves, word by painstaking word, in an unlikely medium: the humble letter.

November 24, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

McKINNEY, Texas -- After 26 years of marriage, Charles Batson says his wife means everything to him. He just wishes he knew how to tell her.

"We're always going in a million different directions and when we talk, it's almost like a text message: Hey, I love you. Gotta go." That's not enough, he said. Not for the way he feels.

So Batson enrolled in a church workshop to learn how to write a love letter.

The course has become a surprise hit in scores of churches across the nation this fall, promoted by pastors who hope the old-fashioned letter can strengthen the frazzled modern family.

Intent on writing not only to their wives, but also to their children and their parents, more than 5,000 men have joined support groups to help one another put their feelings to paper.

The groups -- led by men trained at an evangelical church here in suburban Dallas -- are springing up in California, South Carolina, Oregon and Alaska; in a rural parish in Little Axe, Okla., and a mega-church in Jacksonville, Fla.; in congregations of Quakers, Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans and Southern Baptists.

Participants get a list of recommended adjectives, sample letters to crib from, even a CD with a 60-minute tutorial on "The Lost Art of Letter Writing."

Still, many say the Letters From Dad program is the toughest challenge they have ever faced.

"This isn't something I do," said Steve Weller, 69, a retired software developer.

His two daughters are grown, with children of their own, but Weller never told them he loved them. Then he took on a mentoring role in his church; he felt he should push himself to open up.

Weller started with a letter to his oldest daughter. The tone was a bit distant, with praise for her "sensible, mature outlook" and her "focus and growth."

But he ended with this: "You are a daughter I am very proud of. I love you, Maria."

He planned to present the letter at her 40th-birthday dinner. "The whole time, I was wondering: Will she see it as foolish? Will she accept it? I was really afraid."

After dessert, he took out his three paragraphs, neatly typed. As he read them aloud, Maria's eyes misted; she put her hand on his knee. He reached out and rested his hand atop hers.

"That was a great, great day," he said.

Weller described the moment to his writing support group at McKinney Fellowship Bible Church. The love-letter movement began with congregation member and veteran video producer Greg Vaughn, who thought the writing workshops could be his biggest venture yet -- and his most rewarding mission.

Vaughn, 57, found his inspiration while doing a chore.

Cleaning out the garage one summer day three years ago, he came across a rusted fishing tackle box belonging to his late father. He went to toss it out, then stopped, realizing that the tangled lures inside were all he had left of his dad.

Vaughn cursed his father for not leaving him anything more meaningful. Then he asked himself whether he had done better. If he died right then, what would he leave his four children and three stepchildren?

Vaughn had made a point of always telling his kids he loved them -- something his own father had never been able to do. Vaughn had even written them sweet notes from time to time; his daughter Brooke cherished a "Love You" that he'd scrawled on the paper wrapped around a wire hanger.

But as he held the tackle box, Vaughn knew a hanger wasn't the legacy he wanted to leave. He resolved to give his children letters expressing his pride and his faith in them; his hopes for their future; his memories of joy they'd shared.

He didn't have the slightest idea how to go about it.

Vaughn is dyslexic and has always hated writing, so he scoured his address book for friends he thought might be able to advise him. A dozen agreed not only to help, but also to write letters of their own.

Their first efforts were ready by Christmas 2002.

Dana Hansen was 15 that year and sure she had disappointed her father forever by quitting basketball to take up cheerleading.

Under the tree, she found a mahogany box -- and inside, a letter from her dad, Dirk Hansen, one of Vaughn's friends.

He wrote that he was proud of her for making her own choices. He told her he loved her even when he couldn't understand her.

"I didn't always know he felt that way," said Dana, now a freshman at Texas Tech University. Her dad has continued to write her, and she saves every note.

"He's more expressive in letters than he is in everyday," she said.

Carol Regehr, 50, received a letter that December from her husband, Clint. "My husband is a math guy, analytically oriented, not all that touchy-feely. So for him to have articulated the cherishing, the love, the depth, the commitment -- all those words really touched me," she said.

Such comments spread quickly through church barbecues and PTA meetings, and soon Vaughn was besieged with requests to teach more men to write.

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