Normally, we don’t get caught up in reading what we’re digitizing, but some collections beg for more attention. Over the spring, the incoming correspondence of Ms. Willie Teresa White (1898-1990) caught they eye of our former colleague, Jessica, such that she began to dig deeper. What she found was a woman happy to be a friend to many young men — including nearly two dozen WWI soldiers — but ultimately unwilling to take the further step of marrying.
In a future post, we’ll see just where all those soldiers were stationed and why they might’ve been writing to a woman they in most cases didn’t even know. Today, we’ll look at her correspondence with one of her serious suitors, the persistent Leonard Hughen.
Based on what we find in the Willie T. White papers, Leonard (bless his heart) sent her at least 169 pieces of correspondence over a period of about 5 years. Though we often don’t know where he is, he’s sometimes in Jacksonville, Montgomery, or Rockford, Alabama. The latter was Willie’s hometown, so he might’ve known her for much of her life. Unlike some of her correspondents who address her by a nickname (Cubbie or Cub), he always addresses her as Willie T.
The earliest of his letters is from 1915, like this one sent in April, where he expresses happiness at her apparent recent religious awakening. (In his words, she’s “decided to get on the right side with Christ.”) He apologizes for being so serious in speaking about religion, but he wants her to know that he is “deeply interested” in her.
Later in the letter, he tells her how he feels much more directly:
This is certainly sweet and sincere, but as we read more letters during the scanning process, we came to the conclusion that Leonard was a bit clingy, or at least more interested in her than she was in him. Witness this plea, six months later:
He has similar concerns in January 1916, writing, “Have I done anything to make you mad with me?” In that letter, he reveals himself to be more than a bit gloomy and melodramatic, ending thus:
In October of that year, he writes her speaking of a “proposition” he’s made, undoubtedly a marriage proposal. However, he fears her reply and must plead his case:
Later in the letter, he assures her that he understands her well and that he sees how she’s different from other girls, which is precisely why he loves her. He concludes: “Without you, my life would be a desperate failure.”
In general, Leonard’s correspondence is full of melodramatic exaggeration, like his closing in a letter of May 1919: “My Dear you know I love you, and you are the sweetest person on earth to me. I dream of you most every night and I would give anything in my power to see you.”
Over the course of their correspondence, Leonard does everything he can to prove he cares for her, and whether she believes him to be sincere or not is no matter: she never agrees to marry him. By 1919, he seems to have accepted this, taking instead the part of friend and adviser. In his letter of October 1919 he counsels her on a rumor he heard about her potential marriage:
In April 1920, there’s some confusion as to whether he wants her to stop writing to him. He certainly does not! Though he passive-aggressively mentions that she (unlike he) has never said I Love You, he says he will continue to look for her letters, as she is “the best friend [he] ever possessed.”
However, he never quite gives up hope; at the very least, his feelings never waver. In May 1920, he writes: “Willie T. you can’t imagine how I think of you and it will simply break my heart to have to give you up, I would rather not exist but I guess we can endure most anything that we are compelled to.”
Perhaps Leonard could endure Willie’s rejections in part because she never accepted anyone else either. So what did she do with this life of hers, not tied down to a husband? According to the finding aid for the collection,
As of 1920, Willie was employed as a stenographer at the Young Women’s Christian Association in Birmingham. By the late 1920s, Miss White had moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she would reside for the majority of her life. During the Great Depression, Willie and her mother, Kate White, were operators of the Blue Lantern Tea Room in Tuscaloosa. After World War II, Willie worked as an occupational therapist at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Tuscaloosa. Late in her life, Willie was a resident of Hatley Health Care in Clanton, Alabama. Willie White passed away on July 6, 1990, at the age of 92.