The Elbert Files: Letters linking Generations
Friday, October 18, 2013 7:00 AM
Frances Craig was one of the most gifted writers to ever work at The Des Moines Register. She was also my mother-in-law.
During the 1960s, when my wife was growing up, Frances was a feature writer, covering everything from home decorating to the women’s movement.
Later, in the mid-1970s, when Mike Gartner hired my wife, Amy, and me to work for the Des Moines Tribune, Frances was also writing about medical issues. She won a Penney-Missouri Award in 1977 for a moving story about a heart surgery performed on a day-old infant by Dr. John Gay.
She wrote about many cutting-edge topics before retiring in the mid-1980s, including older couples living together without being married, a lifestyle that she later assumed with an old, dear friend, Dwight Saunders, after my father-in-law, Knox Craig, died in 1997.
First and foremost, though, Frances was a great letter writer.
Her family has known that for years, but my wife and I recently rediscovered it during our annual trip to visit relatives in Oregon and Washington. One of the people we see during these trips is my wife’s Uncle Bob Hardin, who is Frances’s younger brother and the sole survivor of his immediate generation. Bob became the curator of family memorabilia after his parents died.
Frances grew up in southern Idaho and moved to Iowa when my father-in-law, Knox, took a job with the Associated Press in Des Moines in 1943. They both graduated from the University of Idaho.
During college, Frances’s writing talents nearly got her expelled, when it was discovered that the cute farm girl from Paul, Idaho, was earning money on the side by writing papers for many of her classmates. She was so good that she told each client to give her a sample of his writing (it always was a “his”), and she would write whatever the assignment was required in the student’s own “voice.”
She only got caught when her on-campus advertising became too blatant and caught the attention of a faculty member.
But back to her letters.
After Frances and Knox moved to Des Moines, she wrote to her parents weekly, often describing the minutiae of life in the couple’s new home.
One such letter began:
“Any minute Edna Williams will be along to take us to the nursery to buy some shrubbery, evergreens and grass seed.” (Neither Knox nor Frances drove back then.)
At one point, the letter asked: “Is there any chance of your working a trip here this fall?”
“You must see Amy Lou. What a sprout!” she wrote. “She’s the brightest little button – does everything Becky [Amy’s older sister] does from standing on her head to changing the dolls.
“The other day Mary came over with Billy, who’s six months younger. She put him on the floor and Amy Lou came over, took his toy and bopped him in the head, saying severely, ‘No! No!’
“She kept doing it too.
“That’s what happens to her constantly with Becky and she was just delighted to find someone smaller than she to reprimand,” Frances wrote.
Frances’s friend, Mary, mentioned in the letter was Mary Bryson, who also worked in what was then called the women’s section, writing about home furnishings. Mary’s husband, Bill Bryson, was a widely acclaimed baseball writer. The Craigs and Brysons worked and partied together a lot in those days.
“Billy” Bryson, who got bopped on the head by my wife, grew up in the family business and went on to write many books, including “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” a memoir about growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s.
No, my wife was not in the book, but it does have a lot of great stories, just like Frances’ letters.
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