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The Journal Gazette

  • Tribune News Service Kids have written letters to presidents for decades. Some have lead to change. These children wrote letters to Barack Obama about gun violence.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018 1:00 am

The stories behind 'Dear Mr. President'

Dara Elasfar | Washington Post

In April 2015, President Barack Obama received a pretty harsh letter.

“Dear Mr. President, my name is Emilia and I am eleven years old and I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. I just wanted to tell you that I saw your NCAA bracket pick and I beat you. You are a great president, just not the best bracket picker.”

The president not only read the letter, he actually responded. He took the criticism well, agreeing that he doesn't have the best record at picking winners in the annual college basketball tournament. And he wished Emilia continued success.

“I expect big things – and great brackets – from you in the years ahead!” Obama wrote.

Kids have been sending letters to presidents for generations. They include messages of thanks, advice and requests for help.

Sometimes those requests can be dramatic. For example, President Dwight Eisenhower received a request from three teenage girls in 1958.

“We think it's bad enough you are sending Elvis Presley in the Army. But if you cut his sideburns off we will just die!” the teens wrote about “the King” of rock 'n' roll.

Another request came from a young teenage boy named Fidel Castro. (Does that name ring a bell?) In 1940, he sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for a $10 bill because he had never seen American money. That same boy became the prime minister of Cuba 19 years later. Unfortunately for him, he never got the $10.

You can see many letters written by kids in the public vaults, a permanent exhibit, at the National Archives in Washington. Presidential libraries all over the country also display them.

Miriam Kleiman, program director for public affairs at the Archives, has spent years working on gathering letters from presidential libraries to showcase at the museum. She says kids look to their government leaders as people they can trust.

Kleiman also spent years tracking down the writers of letters to presidents. She said they often forgot they had written. In 1956, a young boy named John Beaulieu wrote to Eisenhower offering advice that he focus his campaign speeches on lowering taxes. Beaulieu sent the letter in Braille, a raised-dot writing system used by people who are blind.

He got a response. Kleiman tracked him down in 2004 and invited him to visit his letter at the exhibit.

“It is absolutely amazing to think that something I did as a child would get this kind of recognition. I still find it hard to believe, but I know that it's real because I was there,” he told Kleiman.

Presidents take time to read through many letters written by concerned citizens. Obama's staff would give him 10 letters to read each night. The letters that did not make it to his desk typically would get a response from his staff.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton was the first president to have a public email address and a White House website. This made it easier for citizens across the country to get their letters to him faster.

Even if you can't vote, writing is one way to make a difference and get your voice heard. If you want to write a letter to President Donald Trump, it's easy. Just send it to the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C., 20500. Or submit a letter at whitehouse.gov/contact. Who knows, maybe you will get a response.