History has shown us that sometimes the smallest gesture or chance encounter can set off a chain of events far greater than themselves.
By Judd Rothstein
History has shown us that sometimes the smallest gesture or chance encounter can set off a chain of events far greater than themselves. I experienced this truism for myself on December 19 when Maddie Murcko, a student in my third period A.P. U.S. History course, handed me a couple of old books about Abraham Lincoln that her father had purchased not too long ago. We were at the tail end of a four-week examination of the build up to the Civil War and the conflict itself and Maddie’s father thought that I, a Lincoln aficionado, would enjoy perusing the old volumes.
The next morning, before I taught my first class of the day, I looked at the stack of books and noticed a first edition from 1901 entitled, “Abraham Lincoln: Yarns and Tales.” Lincoln was a master storyteller (brilliantly captured in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”) and the book contained hundreds of tales retold by those who knew Lincoln best. After reading Alexander McClure’s introduction, I began enjoying one short tale after another.
The book also includes beautifully painted reproductions of portraits of Lincoln’s contemporaries (Douglass, Davis, Chase, Seward, Stevens, etc.). With only a couple of minutes before second period, I started quickly flipping through the book to discern who McClure decided was important enough to deserve his own painting. It was at that moment when an old packing slip became dislodged from the back pages and fluttered down upon my desk.
Curious, I looked at the front of the card, and although the cardboard was ripped, frayed, and yellowed, I could read that it was sent via the Railway Express Agency. This was a postal delivery service that used our country’s railroad system starting in 1917 (it was set up as a wartime measure to aid in the World War I mobilization effort) and was in business until 1975, when it was unable to compete with UPS and FedEx (both of which benefited from the completion of the 1956 Interstate Highway Act). I knew the packing slip was old, but I didn’t have a firm grip on its age. I flipped the card over to see to whom and from whom it was sent. The package was addressed to: Mrs. H. W. Paddock at 44 Mountain Avenue in Maplewood, N.J. I blinked and did a double take, not at first accepting that the address was only five streets away from the childhood home where I spent the first 18 years of my life. I started racking my brain for any recollection of a Paddock family from my school years, but didn’t arrive at any. As I was scanning my adolescent rolodex, my eyes glanced down at the bottom of the brittle card and arrived at the sender’s address: A. W. Paddock from the Phi Delta Gamma fraternity at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. I stared dumbstruck and read the address a couple more times, almost unable to register the unreal coincidence: I attended Colgate University, and as a senior, resided in the very same fraternity house. The school bell announcing passing time shook me out of my incredulity and I walked to my next class questioning why I hadn’t played Powerball that week.
I told my first couple of classes the dramatic tale of my serendipitous find (even including an embellished part where I recounted that the final coincidence was that I had a great uncle named Abraham who was shot and killed by someone named John – I quickly cracked a smile, letting them know that I was joking about the last part, but the rest of the connections were true).
My students marveled about how small the world was and wondered if I somehow knew the Paddocks. If only I had the galaxy’s largest database of information linked together with fiber optic cables operating at supersonic speeds at my fingertips… Ah, thank you Al Gore for inventing the Internet! By the middle of eighth period, my research was in full swing and the pieces of the puzzle were starting to fit together.
My first breakthrough came courtesy of e-yearbooks.com, where I discovered the 1944 edition of the Mirror yearbook from Columbia High School, my alma mater. On page 86 I found the smiling face of Arthur Waring “Skip” Paddock of 44 Mountain Avenue (A.W. Paddock). Amazingly, my high school had only submitted four editions to the website: 1944, 1959, 1981, and 1985 – what a stroke of luck that Skip’s graduating class was one of them. Armed with this information, I then searched Skip’s name with his Colgate connection. It was with sadness that I found his June 2006 obituary in an online newspaper from Pittsfield, Mass. The article wrote of his passing at age 79 and confirmed his New Jersey roots, Colgate class (1946), and mentioned his parents’ names, Arthur H. Paddock and Helen Rochelle Paddock (Mrs. A. H. Paddock). I also learned that Skip joined the Navy after college and then, as if the coincidences weren’t strong enough, got a master’s degree in education – just as I had done – in 1965 and taught at Pittsfield High School for 31 years. The article included the details that Skip enjoyed “reading, gardening, and repairing and rebinding damaged books.” Staring down at the 111-year-old book in my hands, I wondered if Skip had put his skills to good use. There was one last piece of salient information from the obituary: Skip was survived by his four daughters, one of whom lived in New York City.
Within seconds I had located Carolyn W. Paddock (I wondered to myself if the W. stood for Waring). She was a successful entrepreneur and had a company website replete with contact information. I shot off a quick email explaining the whole unfolding situation and asked her to confirm that she was indeed Skip Paddock’s daughter. I also asked her if she would be interested in having the packing slip and book back in her family’s possession (Mr. Murcko had graciously given me the book as a present after Maddie had explained to him all my connections to the addresses on the packing slip. He believed that the book was meant for me – little did he know that I would only possess it for a couple of weeks). As the bell was ringing for ninth period, an email from Carolyn W. Paddock appeared in my inbox.
I quickly read her response and to my delight she opened by confirming she was indeed Skip’s daughter and congratulated me on my thorough and quick research. She added some charming details about her father’s teaching career (he was a beloved teacher) and indicated that she would love to have the book back. In a subsequent email I asked Carolyn when the book had left her father’s collection and she explained that in 2007 her mother had donated over 600 books to a local library that sold them to different rare bookstores in order to raise money for the library. It was at one of those stores where Mr. Murcko happened upon Lincoln’s yarns and stories.
I asked Carolyn for her New York City address and sent her a late Christmas present: the book and the packing slip. She wrote back to me and said that she shared the whole story with her mother and they came up with a plan: they wanted to send me a surprise book as a thank you for sending their book back home.
The last great mystery of this historical journey will be discovering which book ends up on my bookshelf. No matter what the subject is, it will always be located in my section of books about Lincoln and the Civil War.
The author is a Social Studies teacher at Rye High School.