But I always knew that in addition to being a wife and mother, I would do something in the way of service. I had a compelling drive to ``help people,`` but I didn`t know exactly how I would do it.
Soon after, I was asked to run for Congress from the 9th District. I said, ``Absolutely no way.`` I had not the slightest interest in being a professional politician. I would work behind the scenes to get the best possible candidate, but the candidate was not going to be me. Back there, in the late `40s and early `50s, I wanted to do something to make the world a better place, but I was going to choose my own spot.
When we moved to Chicago in 1955, I learned pretty promptly that there was no place for me in Illinois politics. Jake Arvey, the Democratic National Committeeman, was very candid. He told me I was ``too independent.`` He said, ``If you saw things you didn`t like, you`d raise hell, and we don`t need any more hell-raisers.`` So there I was, with all this energy and all these bright ideas and no place to go.
I called Will Munnecke, a Chicago Sun-Times executive and friend of long standing, and told him that I had seen a column called ``Ask Ann Landers`` and that maybe I could help the woman with some of her answers. I thought it was a good column, but not great. When I read it, I would cover up her answers andthink about what I would have said if I had been Ann Landers.
Most of my answers were at least as good as hers, and I thought some were better. In retrospect, this was pretty presumptuous of me. She was, after all, a professional writer, and who was I to criticize? I asked Will if there was a chance that I might be able to help her answer some of the mail. I didn`t envision myself as having any real impact on the column or getting any of my responses in print. At that time the column, I believe, was syndicated in 26 papers, which was pretty good in those days. Well, talk about timing. I was stunned to learn from Munnecke that the woman had died just the week before. She had written a few columns ahead, and they were struggling to keep the thing going. He told me that they had a contest in progress in search of a replacement. There were already 28 professional writers competing for the job. He cautioned me against getting my hopes up but said that if I wanted to give it a try, he`d arrange for an appointment with the editor.
The very next day I went to the paper and met Larry Fanning, one of the world`s greatest editors. He asked me if I`d brought a scrapbook of the things I`d written. I told him I`d never written anything that had been published but that I liked to write letters. I said, ``I write to my parents almost every day, and they think the letters are wonderful.`` Fanning was dumbfounded. The next blow came when I told him I wasn`t a college graduate. I`d had three and a half years at Morningside College in Sioux City before I left to get married. Fanning said he hoped I`d studied some psychology. Well, I hadn`t.
From the look on his face, I knew I had better get busy and sell myself. He was losing interest fast.
I told him that the column wasn`t about scrapbooks or psychology. It was about helping people, and all I wanted was a chance. He agreed, and I became the 29th entrant in the contest. I was given 15 letters and told to go home and pretend I was Ann Landers. Fanning tried to be supportive, but I could see he was not optimistic about my chances. He was just trying to be kind to this dumb lady who had come in off the street.
I went home and started to work on the letters. The first one was from a woman who had a walnut tree that was very close to her neighbor`s property.
Most of the walnuts were falling on the neighbor`s lawn, and the neighbor was gathering them and taking them into her house. They`d had some unpleasant words, and the woman who owned the tree wrote to find out who really owned the walnuts.
I knew this was a legal question, and I began to wonder how high up in legal circles I could go for the answer to impress the contest judges. The choice was, of course, the United States Supreme Court. So I picked up the phone and called my old friend Justice William O. Douglas. I asked him the question about the walnut tree, and he said he`d have a clerk look it up and get back to me in 15 minutes. The answer was fascinating. The woman on whose lawn the walnuts were falling could eat them, could cook with them or give them to friends, but she could not sell them. I asked Justice Douglas if I could use his name as my authority, and he said, ``If it will help, go ahead.`` The second letter was about an interfaith marriage-a Catholic-Protestant combination. My authority this time was another friend, Father Theodore Hesburgh, the president of the University of Notre Dame. Father Ted gave me the answer. ``Yes, they could be married in the Catholic Church, but the Protestant woman would have to take instructions from a priest and promise to raise the children as Catholics.``
I answered all the questions in exactly that way-calling the authorities and asking for permission to use their names and cite them as my authorities. When I went back to the paper with my answers, Larry Fanning was astonished.
``You can`t use these people`s names,`` he said. ``They`ll sue us.``
When I told him that I knew these people and they had given me permission, he asked how long I thought I could keep this up. I told him, ``I think I can keep it up for quite a while.`` Fanning then gave me another batch of letters and told me to answer them and bring in the replies the next day, which I did. Marshall Field, who was then the publisher of the paper, called me at home the following Monday. ``Good morning, Ann Landers,`` he said, and that`s how I found out that I had won the contest. Suddenly, I recalled that old French proverb: ``Be careful what you pray for. You might get it.``
I have continued to call on experts for 35 years. Those authorities have helped to make the column legitimate and valuable. And, no, I do not pay them. The subject of money has never come up. I learn from everybody. I`m a great picker of brains. I`m not ashamed to ask questions, and I listen to the answers. Most of what I know I`ve learned from people. I read hundreds of letters every day, and the mail is itself a real education. Many of the people who write to me are a lot smarter than I am. There`s a great deal of wisdom out there. These people have learned from life. Experience can be a terrific teacher, and many of my readers have graduated magna cum laude.
My father once told me, ``You never learn anything while you`re talking.`` Abe Friedman was a very wise man. I didn`t realize how wise he was until I was in my 40s. I learned a great deal from my father. He was a Jewish Russian immigrant who came to this country with my mother in 1908. He couldn`t speak English, had no money and no special skills, but he was smart, hard-working and determined to make something of himself. He started buying chickens from Iowa farmers and selling them to grocers. Before long, he bought a small grocery store, did well and eventually invested in theaters.
When he died at the age of 63, Abe Friedman was one of the most respected citizens in Sioux City. But there was more than respect. He was dearly loved by everybody. He had a special spark and a delicious sense of humor. He never met a stranger, and he never met anyone he couldn`t get along with. He was truly extraordinary, a real ``people person.``