47-year-old letter mystery solved

First page of Jace's letter

Part 2 of a column tracing a 47-year-old letter from a son to his father, delivered two weeks ago to an address in Lafayette. Columnist Jan Risher tracked down the letter writer. 

Jace Ray does not remember writing the Father’s Day letter to his father, but he remembers the summer of 1967 well — and he’s able to put the pieces together.
“It was the summer of love. It was California in 1967. It was the Vietnam War,” the 69-year old said last week by phone from his home in Bisbee, Ariz. “Going to California was not like Lafayette — having crawfish and a good time in Breaux Bridge or some place. “
After Ray graduated from high school in 1963 in Texas, his parents moved to the River’s Bend subdivision in Lafayette.
“I went to USL for a couple of years. Then, I told my parents that I was going to go out there and check out California. It was an adventure, but it was also very sobering,” he said. “I went to find myself. Spending time on my own made me appreciate my dad in a way I hadn’t before.”
When Father’s Day that summer rolled around, Ray decided to put thought to paper.
The problem came somewhere along the way between his Garden Grove, Calif. apartment and his parents home in Lafayette. No one knows where the letter has been for 47 years between its mailing and delivery.
For whatever reasons, the letter was finally delivered to the correct address two weeks ago. Tommy Sheppard, of Lafayette and a friend of the home’s owner, set out on a mission to track down the letter writer. When he posted it on Facebook, I took the bait. After visiting with Sheppard and his wife, I began to search.
After initial searches had come up empty, I decided to ask Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux for help in finding a complete name. Comeaux was as interested in the mystery as I was and went beyond finding the homeowner’s name to doing a bit of online research to find some of his family’s names as well. We knew we had the right family because the letter mentioned “Rita,” — and this family had a daughter by that name.
One of the daughters died a few years ago. Her obituary provided the next clue that helped connect the dots — her husband’s first name. They had lived in Texas. He remarried, and his new wedding announcement gave me enough clues to find a phone number.
A lovely lady answered the phone. In as few and as un-creepy words as possible, I explained why I was calling. I told her I had found her wedding announcement. She told me they too had a beautiful love story. She also told me that Jace, the letter writer, was alive and well and living out West last she heard.
She offered to try and get him a message. I waited more than a day and didn’t hear from them. When I called back, I spoke with her husband. He was as nice as he could be and gave me a phone number for Jace. As an afterthought, he gave me an address too.
A lovely lady answered that number too. I began to explain the call. She said, “Honey, you’re calling Kentucky and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Fortunately, now I knew he lived in Arizona and realized the area code digits were transposed. I called the new number again and asked for Mr. Ray, the voice on the other end said, “He’s gone to the store.” I explained and was assured he would call back.
About an hour later, my phone rang.
“This is Jace Ray.”
Sometimes after searching long and hard for something, finding it doesn’t seem real. I explained the letter saga. He gave me his address in California from 1967. He gave me his parents’ address in Lafayette. He told me his sister’s name and explained her illness as a child.
I asked if he wanted to hear the letter. He did. When I finished reading the complete letter, there was silence on his end.
“Golly, I wrote that?” he said.
I said, “I believe you did.”
“Wow. Golly. That’s intense,” he said. “I’m sorry Dad didn’t get it.”
“I am too,” I said. “That’s why I wanted to find you — to let you know he never got the letter. I didn’t want you to think he knew all of this and didn’t respond.”
“Oh, he knew. Later in life, I told him. He passed away when he was 81. This letter was kind of a script to what I said later on,” he said.
I called Ray back a few days later after he had a chance to process the news.
He told me years after he wrote the letter — he and his dad had “the old man-to-man talk” on the back porch.
“Dad never told me he loved me,” he said. “He was of America’s greatest generation. He lived through the Depression. He was a man of few words, but I was really desperate to hear those words. I wanted to get his blessing as it were. Once I hugged him and told him I loved him. He said, ‘Me too, son,’”
And that was as close as he got, but as they were talking that day on the back porch, Ray said he had an epiphany.
“I was using some terminology and psychology words I’m sure my father wasn’t aware of,” he said. “Dad was sitting there smoking his pipe. All of a sudden, I had a revelation. Dad wasn’t very talkative, so instead of asking him about his feelings, we got to one syllable. I said, ‘Dad, was it OK with you that I ended up the way I have?’ He said, “Yeah, it was. You ended up a good man.’“
I asked Ray if he makes it a point to tell people he loves them.
“Oh yes, I do,” he said, “Linda, I love you,” he yelled to his wife.
I could hear her laugh through the phone and yell, “He tells me he loves me all the time.”
Ray laughed too.
“I make it a point of telling people I love them,” he said. “I ‘m not afraid of those words. In retrospect, I feel like I’ve got the strong, good qualities Dad had — I’m conscientious. I have a good work ethic. I speak the truth and walk in the light.”
“I’m sure your dad is proud,” I said. “He loved you.”
“Oh, I know he did,” Ray said.
On Monday, Sheppard sent the 47-year-old letter back across the country to its writer, this time by registered mail.
The last I spoke with Ray, the letter had yet to arrive.

47-year-old letter leads to mystery

Envelope

The letter was dated June 14, 1967.
An unknown postal worker had hand stamped the envelope and its .05 stamp: “PM JUN 15 1967 Garden Grove, Calif.”
What happened next remains a mystery, but the letter was finally delivered, with no fanfare, last week — a mere 47 years late.
Addressed to Mr. JB Ray, in a neat, artsy handwriting, with A’s that look more like triangles, the letter was delivered to the exact street address written on the envelope to a home in the River’s Bend neighborhood, here in Lafayette.
No one who lived in the home or any of the surrounding neighbors knew or remembered a Mr. JB Ray. Tommy Sheppard, a friend of the owner of the home, happened to be visiting when the postman nonchalantly delivered the letter.
The letter ignited something in Sheppard. With the homeowner’s blessings, he and his wife set about on a mission to find the letter’s rightful owner. First, he posted a picture of the envelope on Facebook, asking for help in finding Mr. JB Ray or anyone connected to him.
I saw the image and was mesmerized with the possibilities. I contacted Sheppard and went to see the letter.
“I didn’t want to read it,” Tommy said. “But my wife read it and said it was one of the most beautiful letters she had ever read.”
By the time I arrived, Tommy had decided to read the letter too.
“Jan, you’ve got to read this letter, and we’ve got to find these people,” he said.
That’s how I came to be the fourth person to read the letter since it was written more than 47 years ago. When they handed it to me, the first thing I noticed was the quality of the paper and the overall pristine condition of the envelope and letter.
“Where could this thing have been for all those years?” I asked myself. There wasn’t a tear or bent corner to be found.

Dear Dad,
Being alone you have plenty of time to think. You think about the turn of events that caused the past and question the present — and then you wonder about the future. … You’ve been the pillar of strength of our family. From the beginning with Rita’s illness, to the accident and other hardships, not to mention some I may not know about. Gray hair and wrinkles in the process but no weakness — just strength.
And maybe you’ve questioned your judgment and aren’t sure if you always did the correct thing. You’ve raised a family that’s devoted to each other and held together by love. This is the true criteria.
You’ve got what other men long for but never obtain. I’m not sure how I’ll turn out, Dad, but I can only hope that I’m half the man you are and that my children will love me as much as I do you.
It’s hard to write a feeling, but I’ve tried. I’ve thought about this letter a long time and, of course, Father’s Day would be the appropriate time to send it.
My only regret is that I’m not there with you to shake your hand and say, Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
Your loving son

I agreed with Tommy — we had to find someone alive who was connected to this letter. In a perfect world, both parties would still be alive and well, but since the letter referenced gray hair in 1967, I knew that the father was likely not still around.
Maybe the son was — which made me wonder if he thought his father had received the letter and had not responded. Maybe I could find him to let him know the truth.
So, I set off on a wild goose chase to find him. The problem was he only used his dad’s initials in the address and didn’t sign the letter with his name.
Three days later, I had what I believed to be the letter writer’s phone number in hand, I called the number and a man answered.
I said, “Mr. Ray?”
The voice said, “He’s gone to the store…”

Come back next week to find out about Jan’s conversation with the man who wrote the letter to his dad back in 1967 — and the twists, turns and help along the way to find him.